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  • Heather Osteraa

“Men On Boats” Takes the ‘Man’ Out of Manifest Destiny

Updated: May 19

Jaclyn Backhaus’ Rollicking History Pageant Plays at The Western Stage Oct. 26 – Nov. 10, 2019


Self-proclaimed “History Nerds” (a category to which I proudly belong) know the struggle. Whether you’re watching a well-intentioned play, a period television series, or a historical re-enactment, there is nothing more cringe-worthy than a blip in historical accuracy. The hem of a dress or a hairstyle not appropriate for the time. A prop or set dressing years ahead of its time. Or the worst of all, poorly researched, badly chosen vernaculars. Those of us who love history indulge our fantasies of time-travel by seeking entertainment laced with the veil of a by-gone era. Enjoyment is directly dependent on accuracy, which is of course, a lofty expectation, so we are very often dismayed by the most insignificant detail. Our kind suffer from the desperate longing to have lived in another time, the constant yearning to know EXACTLY what it was like “back then”…


“Men on Boats” is NOT what you would call historically accurate; however, it is brilliant in the way that it pays a certain respect to the events and entities of the past, while giving it a fresh, modern spin. History Nerd Approved. Author, Jaclyn Backhaus, doesn’t TRY for accuracy. That is, the style of the play is an admission to the fact that we can’t really depict such a story with pinpoint accuracy. I mean, how in the world would you expect to go about traversing the Grand Canyon and coursing rivers in a 99-seat black box theater anyway? Instead, “Men on Boats” tells its story from the perspective of a contemporary reader filtering accounts of another age through her own modern-day sensibility. It’s not unlike what Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing with his hip-hop musical, “Hamilton.” The characters speak in a 21st-century vernacular while portraying 19thcentury men, weaving the modern point of view into the historical events. The tone is comic, but never cute or camp. And ultimately, the play respects its bold if fallible pioneers, in all their natural bravery and fearfulness.

By the way, there isn’t a man in the 10-member cast of “Men on Boats.” While the real life explorers were a band of white males, the cast is made up entirely of anything but, as stipulated by the playwright. Ms. Backhaus’ script is packed with action, and the actors commit to their roles with such sincerity, that there is no room for any nudging references to a gender gap; however, the at times obvious distance between performers and their roles helps bridge the distance between then and now. The author requires color-conscious as well as gender-bent casting to give further challenge to our expectations of who explorers were. And it becomes quite apparent that grasping the artificial masculine constructs of the 1860’s would be equally as difficult for a male actor than for any other. The men in Backhaus’ play are rendered in a carefully exaggerated style that both teases and cozies up to the clichés of the archetypal hero adventurer.


The story stays close to “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,” Powell’s published record of the historic journey he organized for the United States government. We follow Powell, a stately one-armed army major, and his expedition crew as they wend their way through perilous waters to create the first official map of the region. Along the way, they bond, scrap, joke, reminisce and argue about directions, rather like any group traveling together. The stakes, though, are mortal. Several of the team come close to death when boats capsize. Food rations and surveyor’s instruments are lost to the river. The play begins with 10 men in four boats. By the end, that ratio is six to three. How this occurs is brought to infectiously vivid life, making “Men on Boats” an action-packed play.


About the Author:

Jaclyn Backhaus is a playwright, co-founder of Fresh Ground Pepper, and new member of The Kilroys. Her plays include Men On Boats (New York Times Critics’ Pick, Clubbed Thumb, Playwrights Horizons, published by Dramatists Play Service), India Pale Ale (Manhattan Theatre Club, recipient of the 2018 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play), You Across From Me (co-written with three other writers for the Humana Festival), Folk Wandering (book writer and co-lyricist with 11 composers, Pipeline Theatre Company), and You On the Moors Now (Theater Reconstruction Ensemble), among others. She was the 2016 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at Clubbed Thumb and she is currently in residence at Lincoln Center. Backhaus holds a BFA in Drama from NYU Tisch, where she now teaches. She hails from Phoenix, Arizona, and currently resides in Ridgewood, Queens with her husband, director Andrew Scoville and their son Ernie.


Cast list: Niki Moon (John Wesley Powell), Christina Moore (William Dunn), Jennifer Foreman (John Colton Sumner), Monica LaVelle (Old Shady), Florence Paget (Bradley), Christina McGovern (O.G. Howland), DeAnna Diaz (Seneca Howland),Anna Schumacher (Frank Goodman), Kristin Brewer (Hall), Micaela David (Hawkins)


The Western Stage’s production is directed by Ellen Brooks; set design by Nicole Anne Bryant-Stephens; costume design by Allison Dillard; lighting design by Emma Satchell; sound design by Billie Cox; and hair and makeup design by Maegan Roux.

From the Director:

Four fragile wooden boats oared by ten explorers, trappers, hunters, a mapmaker and one Brit adventuring in the great American West challenge the Green and Colorado Rivers. The year is 1869. The commission: to chart and navigate a wildly unpredictable waterway, gateway to a majestic fabled canyon. Four months of cramped rowing on a river that swells, foams and falls, with provisions dwindling and no contingency plan is what shapes this robust, crazed crew into American heroes with a place in history. And in Jaclyn Backhaus’ play these ten intrepid are all women. -Director, Ellen Brooks


Historical Context of “Men On Boats:” The Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869

Led by American naturalist John Wesley Powell, it was the first thorough cartographic and scientific investigation of the Green and Colorado rivers in the southwestern United States, including the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of the Grand Canyon. The expedition, which lasted approximately three months, embarked from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory and traveled downstream through parts of the present-day states of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona before reaching the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in present-day Nevada. Despite a series of hardships, including losses of boats and supplies, near-drownings, and the eventual departures of several crew members, the voyage produced the first detailed descriptions of much of the previously unexplored canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.


In 1875, Powell published an account of the expedition called Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, which was revised and reissued in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.


Powell had spent much of his youth rafting the Mississippi River in the Upper Midwest. A Union major during the American Civil War, he lost his right arm to amputation after he was hit by an unspent minie ball at the Battle of Shiloh. Prior to coming west, Powell had been a professor of geology at the Illinois State Normal School and a curator of the Illinois Museum of Natural History.


The expedition set out from Green River, Wyoming with a company of ten men including Powell’s brother Walter, as well as a group of seasoned mountain men and war veterans that Powell had recruited on his way to Wyoming. All of the expedition members had considerable wilderness know-how, and seven were veterans of the Civil War, all of whom had fought for the Union. None of them, however, had any significant whitewater experience on the rivers of the West.


Of the ten men that started out from Green River, six completed the entire journey. On August 30, Powell and the five others reached safety at the Mormon settlement of St. Thomas near the mouth of the Virgin River.


“Men on Boats” Performs Oct. 26, 27 (ReActions), Nov. 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10 in the Studio Theater. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets at www.westernstage.com/tickets or (831) 755-6816. Word to the wise, Studio shows sell out quickly due to our healthy group of seasonal subscribers, but a small percentage of them frequently make last-minute cancellations or don’t attend at all, leaving a handful of open seats. We recommend purchasing stand-by tickets prior to curtain. Our front-of-house team will find you an open seat or your money back! Call the Box Office to learn more about stand-by procedure: (831) 755-6816 (Wed – Sat, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m.) or email westernstage@hartnell.edu!


*The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Western Stage*

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