‘Manahatta’: Twice-told tale

Mary Kathryn Nagle's world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets to the roots of Wall Street and a centuries-old culture clash

ASHLAND — Manahatta playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, somewhat surprisingly, is an attorney. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. These identities inform her writing, as evidenced in Manahatta, a world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened in late March and continues through October 27.

Manahatta is a play set in two worlds — the modern-day (Oklahoma and Wall Street) and hundreds of years earlier in Manahatta (what is now Manhattan) — about a woman set in two worlds. Jane (Tanis Parenteau) is a contemporary Lenape woman living in Manhattan and returning as often as her success on Wall Street will allow to visit her family in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Parenteau also portrays a character named Le-le-wa’-you in the past Manahatta.

Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson, right) tells Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) that Manahatta is no longer a safe place for the Lenape.Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jane’s Wall Street success is juxtaposed to the life of her sister, Debra (Rainbow Dickerson, a welcome addition to the OSF company, who brings such magic to this role that you will hardly believe she is the same woman who portrays Bianca in Othello), who has stayed at home and is fighting to keep the Lenape language alive. Their mother, Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) knows the language, but refused to speak it for many years, so the daughters aren’t fluent. And, as the story and reality go, the language is at risk of being forgotten.

The Lenape people existed peacefully for centuries in the Northeastern United States, including what is now New York City. Europeans did not understand the Lenape, and the Lenape didn’t understand these new people, so the “purchase” of Manhattan was much more like a robbery. Jane comes face to face with these stark realizations while living in New York. She is mostly glued to her office, but manages to learn how Wall Street got its name (the Dutch traders built a wall to keep out the people they stole the land from).

Everyone — particularly her boss, Joe (Danforth Comins), and his boss, Dick (Jeffrey King) — keeps telling Jane how amazing it is that she is having such success here: her, a Native American, successful on Wall Street and paving a path for others to follow? The irony, of course, is not lost on the audience that Jane’s path started here and that, in fact, her ancestors literally carved the path (Broadway was the original trail carved through the brush of Manahatta by her people).

Every actor in this play shows great range, portraying someone in the earlier time period, too (and transitioning from one character to the other onstage, before our eyes): Parenteau becomes Le-le-wa’-you, in love with Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores, who plays Jane’s Lenape friend, Luke, in Anadarko, who has been adopted by the town banker/church choir director, played by David Kelly). There are no clear-cut transitions, and often the past starts crawling in while those in the present continue their story. This is especially poignant when Jane is experiencing a crisis on Wall Street and her ancestors join her, recalling the real tragedy that occurred here so long ago.

Director Laurie Woolery has managed the transitions impeccably — with a strong assist from lighting designer James F. Ingalls, who can shift our attention even when the action on stage doesn’t change. Woolery is respectful of and attentive to the playwright’s script and the Lenape history. “So respectfully,” writes Woolery, who lives in New York, “we have been excavating this history out of the soil, rocks and roots of this sacred island despite [it] being buried beneath cement, steel and glass.”

Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores)gives Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) a wampum necklace that belonged to his mother. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dickerson is also Le-le-wa’-you’s sister and Tousey once again her mother in the Lenape world. Jane’s bosses are traders who help, each in his own way, rip this precious land from the Lenape people. Kelly is a pastor in Manahatta. In both worlds, Kelly sees himself as the “savior” of the Lenape: He goes so far in Anadarko as to tell his adopted Lenape son, Luke, that he saved him. The savior complex is hard to watch — as the church choir director who also works at the bank effectively takes Bobbie’s lifelong home away from her. It’s not Manahatta, but it serves as an effective symbol, bringing up fresh for Bobbie all she has lost: her husband, her language, her people’s culture, and now her home.

Comins, King, and Kelly all portray characters that must be difficult to embrace—uttering words like “savage” and continually treating the Lenape as less than people (“You speak!” they exclaim, delighted and surprised as if a baby had spoken its first words, when a Lenape person speaks their language). Each of these actors does a fine job (and Comins deserves extra credit for bringing something completely different to this stage within a day, or hours, of portraying Iago in Othello). But they leave the emotional resonance and most powerful moments to the Native characters.

The actors make their transitions from one time period to another brilliantly, not only due to strong performances and shifts in language and mannerisms, but also with the help of costumes (designed by E.B. Brooks) that transfer from one period to another, and of the set (by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez) that looks so simple at first glance — a table, some rocks, a chair — but contains so much: centuries, even.

This play points out what should be obvious: Our successes in America are built on the backs and lives of the Native people who occupied this land before our ancestors took it from them and relegated them to reservations, where they were ignored at best or gravely mistreated at worst. There is no clearer indication or symbol of what we have built this country on than in Manhattan in general and Wall Street in particular. The Dutch traders were able to steal Manhattan easily without guilt, because the Lenape people did not understand the concept of “owning” a place. So, they were driven out, violently and permanently (or so Jane’s “rare” success would seem to indicate), and the Europeans were able to make millions and build skyscrapers as symbols of their wealth.

Luke (Steven Flores) has doubts about the mortgage loan his adoptive father Michael (David Kelly) has encouraged a friend to take out to pay off her family’s medical bills. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

But if you build your life and hopes and dreams around monetary successes, Nagle warns, you are bound to lose it all. Destroying the ways and lives and homes of the Native people whose land this truly is will not lead to redemption — no, I gather, not even if you’re a pastor or a church choir director. Manahatta may leave you shattered, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. Debra’s work preserving the Lenape language, Jane learning about Manhattan’s history, and this world-premiere play in the Thomas Theatre are all reasons to believe that all is not yet lost.

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