Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats” has come to the Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston. And, for 100 minutes the audience experiences a hilariously thrilling adventure with imaginative staging and over-the-top theatrics of the retelling of Major John Wesley Powell’s 1869 daring exploratory trip down the Colorado River through present-day Grand Canyon. The trip was the first cartographic recording of the river and of white men traversing the Grand Canyon.
But “Men on Boats” is more than just a belly of laughs about ten men in four boats surveying an uncharted canyon. “Men on Boats” is an eye-opening and provocative comedy/drama about the polemics of white cisgender male power and privilege to conquer the wilderness girded by their unflinching God-given belief in the 19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny to do so. Also, these men had the power and privilege to write America’s history of exploring westward to spread “democracy” by conquering anything and anyone in their way.
Yet, as troubling as Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Union Civil War veteran, and his intrepid explorers were when we look at them with a 21st-century sensibilities, we cannot ignore the courage and bravery of these men. And, not withstanding how misguided they were in their intentions, in their era they were unquestionably celebrated American heroes exemplifying the western spirit and vision of adventure.
Today, however, we can talk about how these types of U. S. government sanctioned white men adventures came with a tremendously devastating cost not only to the Native American tribes of the Utes in the West but, also, to the land itself.
“But there are moments of indictment, too,” the show’s director, Dawn M. Simmons told the Boston Globe. “It’s not a send-up of white men exploring, but it examines how people, before and after these guys, caused a systemic wiping out of history. Those are the places where you find the most biting commentary.”
The audience will be pleasantly surprised by how diverse the cast is. Gender-bending and racial diversity are front and center with the 10-member expeditionary team played by female, transgender and gender-nonconforming actors as rugged macho frontiersmen. The diverse cast brings a richness, energy and enticing narrative about the trials, triumphs, and tribulations of white male territorial exploration and expansionism I, otherwise, frankly speaking, could care less about.
“I’m really glad that Speakeasy chose this play to produce and to start their season with. It has the potential to challenge the status quo, the privileged, that there are many narratives in the larger American history narrative that do not get told, that have been wiped out, kept out,” Mal Malme, who portrays Powell’s taciturn brother, Old Shady, told me.
“There are many heroes that are not white men. And those narratives, those voices need to be heard. Especially now as we dismantle white supremacy.”
As a young girl, playwright Backhaus grew up hearing fantastical adventurous tales about Powell’s 1869 expedition, and her father had a copy of his published journals. In Backhaus employing a non-traditional queer feminist approach to tell Powell’s story Backhaus is not erasing the historical accuracy to the story but rather she’s highlighting how people of varying gender identities, races, and sexual orientations can embody the narrative, relate to its characters, respect the explorers’ courage and bravery without ignoring their advances into territories peopled by Native Americans.
The humor in the play is cathartic and sorely needed when you stop to think of how the good intentions of Powell’s expedition still have lasting and unchanged consequences today. What keeps the humor throughout the play is the juxtaposition of 19th-century eloquence coexisting with today’s crude and crash colloquialisms.
“And by using contemporary language, also humor, and physicality, it allows for audiences to not only connect to the story but put themselves into the story as well,” Malme told me.
When “Men on Boats” concludes, you feel a shared rollicking experience of adventure -going through the rapids and over waterfalls and narrowly escaping them alive- with the cast members. And, you’ll unquestionably leave “Men on Boats” laughing. But, you’ll also leave “Men on Boats” wondering about the unheard voices of the displaced Native Americans and their tales of white men conquering the West.