When it comes to American history, how often are women portrayed as an imminent part of its mold? Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Betsy Ross, Amelia Earhart, Harriett Tubman, Coretta Scott King … they exist, even if few, far and in between compared to many male counterparts popping up in history books and on TV and film. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus decided to turn an historic American exploratory story, traditionally helmed by white cisgender men, on its tail a few years ago when she wrote “Men on Boats.”
The 1869 expedition of the Grand Canyon follows Major John Wesley Powell and his crew’s journey down the Colorado River to discover America’s largest mass of sandstone, shale and limestone in Nevada. By researching Powell’s journal, Backhaus was able to combine the vernacular of the 1800s and mesh it with modern language as to provide a fresh lens in reimagining the adventure. But she took it one step further and decided to forego casting it with historical accuracy, in favor of highlighting a racially diverse, gender-nonconforming, and all-female or transgender female cast.
“The play absolutely opens up a discourse about perceptions of history, gender and world view, and that is always a good thing,” Beth Swindell tells.
Swindell is directing “Men on Boats” for Big Dawg Productions. The play premieres in Wilmington on Wednesday night.
“It forces the audience to see this story in a different way,” Swindell continues. “Backhaus is very respectful of the story and men involved, but still finds a way to use the piece to reflect issues and inconsistencies in representation that we still see today. To be able to do that, while giving this many female actors a chance to play these physical, demanding and powerful roles, is quite amazing.”
The cast consists of Eleanor Stafford, Erin Hunter, Sarah Matthews, Cate Walker, Lupin Byers, B’Ellana Duquesne, Mariah Martin, Emily Gomez, Aurora Flores and Grace Carlyle Berry. The women are not dressing up in drag—period costuming is done by Stephanie Scheu Aman—or even speaking and acting like men. Instead, they’re representing the male characters from within. They are embodying them like any role they would embrace; the only difference is they interpret men through the voice and physicality of a woman. “That’s where I see the beauty and the opening for a positive conversation,” Swindell details.
Erin Hunter as William Dunn is fully enveloping characteristics of someone who challenges everything within himself—and of his leader and crew on the boat. His desire is for recognition, legacy and greatness. “When he gets a cliff named after him, it gives him validation and fuels his adventurous spirit,” Hunter says. Dunn cuts to the core humanity, showcasing wants and desires, which somehow prove quite the same between 1869 and 2019, according to Hunter. “We want to be seen for who we are and we want to be remembered, regardless of sex, ethnicity or background.”
While the show is based on expedition and immediately is physical in its re-enactment (enduring waterfalls and rocky rivers searching for food, combating Mother Nature’s unforeseen strength), “Men on Boats” really puts on full display the inner workings of the human spirit and how we face trials and tribulations. It’s the thread that connects the characters to the story and mirrors the audience.
“One focus of this season was the concept of how we tell our histories,” says Big Dawg artistic director Steve Vernon, “whether they be collective stories or personal narratives, and who we allow to tell history.”
Vernon has highlighted points of view of varied people in a theatre setting this year. He focused on the African-American experience in August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” in May and women of historic power in “The Revolutionists” in March. “When we only get a single narrative or perspective, it becomes easy to assume no other perspectives exist,” Vernon tells. “Then we end up losing so much of what those stories can offer us.”
Though most females didn’t endure expeditions to find new lands in America in the 19th century—especially a government-sanctioned one—watching them act the story becomes fresh. It emanates bravery and shows how fear, sadness, joy, excitement, surprise, shame, and loss is universal, no matter circumstances or biological makeup.
“It challenges the idea that certain types of characters are off limits to certain types of actors,” Vernon attests. “This is at heart an adventure, complete with roller-coaster rapids and superhuman struggles. It’s rare we get to see a play give non-male actors a chance to participate in adrenaline-fueled action comedies!”
Much of the show has been hailed as quite funny, even though Backhaus has gone on record saying how surprised she was when areas of the script solicited humor. It’s merely the power of the text and the actor who handles it. Yet, playing the comic-relief of the crew is the cook, portrayed by Sarah Matthews.
“He attempts to encourage a positive energy, while keeping everyone fed through the thrills, chills and death-defying spills,” Hawkins describes. She calls her role an uplifting encounter. “It’s almost been cathartic to play a man. The production has us question what other representation in history we are lacking due to overwhelming need for male conquests.”
Donna Troy has designed a 3D set with murals and bright colors, while Vernon is behind the sound and Robb Mann in control of lighting. “Light and sound are so important to this production because we really need those elements to make the audience believe the characters are actually on a river and running rapids,” Swindell adds.