By Nate Beyer
The only way forward, to go beyond American myths of innocence, is to confront the enduring crimes of the past.
Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle. Directed by Laurie Woolery. Yale Rep at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT, through February 15.
William Faulkner believed that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Mary Kathryn Nagle’s profound and moving new play Manahatta insists that we have yet to come to grips with that elemental truth.
Her play interweaves the intrigue of Manhattan finance in the 2000s with the early days of trading between America’s native Lenape tribe and the Dutch on the island called Manahatta in the 1600s. All the actors play characters in both time periods, seamlessly moving between the 21st century and the 17th century, depending on little more than a gesture or a quick change of costume. It is an impressive feat of onstage time-tripping, the cast members jumping backward and forward centuries with the assistance of alternating set-wide projections.
In a commanding performance, Lily Gladstone plays Jane, a member of the Lenape people whose ancestors once lived on Manahatta. She is ambitious, a graduate with an advanced degree in financial mathematics from MIT. At the play’s outset, we hear her pining about climbing the corporate ladder at Lehman Brothers. She secures her first break through an act of crazed loyalty: she confesses to her future boss that, in order to make her Lehman interview, she skipped being with her family during her father’s open heart surgery. Joe (Danforth Comins), the exec who guides her career, is impressed and hires her on the spot.
Gladstone also plays Le-le-wa’-you, a 17th-century Lenape woman who skins beaver pelts in preparation for trading with the Dutch. Le-le-wa’-you is curious about the visitors and interested in the business of trading. She playfully imitates how a European woman might wear a beaver pelt (“For special occasions,” says Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores), the male designated by the Dutch to be the tribe’s trading rep. “Like walking down a street.”) As Manahatta moves along, Le-le-wa’-you mirrors Jane’s desire to become part of capitalism, urging Se-ket-tu-may-qua to take her to trade on Manahatta’s “broad way.” Nagel understands that, then as now, the marketplace is where cultures cooperate — and clash.
Jane’s father Charlie, who dies from complications after heart surgery, and Bobbie (Carla Rae), her mother, live in a rural community in Oklahoma that Jane left years before. Bobbie is not a regular churchgoer, but Charlie was active in the local church, and pastor Michael (T. Ryder Smith) and his adopted indigenous son Luke (Steven Flores) are among the first to offer their condolences to Bobbie at her home. While there, Luke learns of the $60K worth of medical bills that Bobbie owes because the Bureau of Indian Affairs had denied payment for Charlie’s medical care. Soon Michael, also a local banker, is offering Bobbie a home equity loan with an ARM (“but I’ve already got two,” Bobbie quips). The financial irony is clear: the subprime mortgage market buoying Jane’s career at Lehman is going to bring about the loss of the family’s homestead.
The play parallels Jane’s ascension to the top of Lehman Brothers with the dealmaking between the Lenape and the Dutch, leading up to the “purchase” of the island by the Europeans. Jane becomes CFO during the early stages of Lehman’s crash. (Her trajectory echoes that of Erin Callahan, the young woman from a middle-class Queens family who rose to the same position during Lehman’s undoing.) In addition to actors playing multiple roles, some of the same lines are repeated, accruing sardonic sting, in the two time periods. “There’s no such thing as enough” Jeffery King proclaims, both as Dick Fuld (Lehman CEO) and as the Dutch West India company leader Peter Minuit. Even Le-le-wa’-you becomes increasingly enthusiastic about trading beaver pelts, eagerly preparing more furs for sale. More becomes the bottom line of this disastrous game.
Carla Rae’s Bobbie is plainspoken and direct, the play’s moral backbone. This is a woman who knows the score, even if she doesn’t know the details of an adjustable rate mortgage. Her 17th-century role, Mother, is the matriarchal leader of the tribe trading with the Dutch. Steven Flores, as Luke and Se-ket-tu-may-qua (literally “Black Beaver” in English), is also strong. Flores’s Luke is an earnest nerd, caught between his affection for Bobbie and his incipient career at the bank under the guidance of his adopted father. He wants to do the right thing — but can he make a profit while doing it? As Se-ket-tu-may-qua, Flores swaps Luke’s uncertainty for the smooth self-confidence of a young man who believes he understands conflicting cultures — and that this knowledge will help him control his own destiny.
The play’s sharp critique of capitalism, class, gender, and race focuses on how “misunderstandings” between cultures, then and now, are not innocent mistakes. They are calculated “mistakes” engineered by the powerful and privileged. A puzzled Bobbie signs a predatory, non-income-verified loan. “She’d never understand,” Michael explains to Luke, trying to assuage his son’s concerns. Is this because of her poverty, gender, or race? Michael seems sympathetic to her plight. He wants the best, but is comfortable with the paternalistic assumption that Bobbie is “helped” in ways that will also benefit Michael and the bank. The Dutch insist on trading only with the men at first. When they make their offer to “buy” the land of Manahatta, they have no idea they are dealing with a matriarchal system. When the final transaction is completed to “sell” the island to the Dutch, Mother believes the Dutch have agreed to be welcomed into the family. The whites believe they have just bought the land out from under the Lenape. Spoiler alert: the Dutch view prevails. They have more guns. In both cases, the “misunderstanding” results in the Lenape losing their land to the whites.
As Jane rises through the ranks, Lehman Brothers falls apart. Taxed for using the land they had hunted and fished on for generations, the Lenape rebel against the Dutch. The Oklahoma home is foreclosed on. Eventually, the two time frames merge into a terrifying tableau: thrust into the CFO position at a crisis point, Jane arranges a quarterly earnings conference call — with a dead indigenous American lying at her feet. The only way to go beyond American myths of innocence, Nagle suggests, is to confront the enduring the crimes of the past.
Nate Beyer is a writer and educator, and winner of the St Botolph Foundation Emerging Artist Award. His work has appeared in Dark Sky Magazine, the Arts Fuse, the Adirondack Review, and in print in Attache, the in flight magazine of US Airways. Contact him at email@example.com.