By Tulis McCall
“Manahatta”, now at the Public Theater, is a snappy and disturbing play that will make you reconsider Manhattan, whether or not you want to “Manahatta” in Lenape means “Land of many hills” which, according to the play was the case before the sea levels rose. Really? The climate changed before we arrived? This is only one of the many facts that are dropped throughout this show that make you pay attention.
The story centers around Jane (Elizabeth Frances) aka Le-le-wa’-you who has come to New York to work on Wall Street. Jane wants to be where the power is, underwriting securities and dealing in stocks and bonds. She left her Oklahoma home long ago but today is critical. Her father is having major surgery. He will not survive and this will put another nail in the coffin of Jane’s relationship with her mother Bobbi (Sheila Tousey) and her sister Debra (Rainbow Dickerson) aka Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i. Jane is the one who ran away.
Kathryn Nagle gives us both worlds with the added bonus of 17th century New York. The cast slips ini and out of the past and present without a hiccup. To Nagle’s credit her writing moves swiftly and we are meant to keep apace. Jeffrey King plays Peter Minuit and Joe Tapper plays Jakob both traders of the West India Company, and in the Lehman (yep that one) offices they play Dick and Joe respectively. Both are pairs with cutthroat instincts. Jakob and Joe do have soft spots, but Dick is true to his name.
Enrico Nassi and David Kelly fill out the cast as Lenape and White respectively. As Se-ket-tu-may-qua and Luke Nassi is both a Lenape warrior who trades with the Dutch and is one of the first to see the betrayal coming and a man back home looking to find his way in the employ of the local bank. David Kelly plays the minister sent to lead the Dutch – Jonas Michaelius and the present day local bank manager who is friends with Bobbie and Debra.
The two stories are braided together. The Lenape leader Tousey) are tricked into selling land that they believe they do not own; Bobbie is talked into mortgaging her house, that she also believes she does not “own” because there is no deed. It has been in the family for generations. Lehman brothers are selling positions that seem to be created out of thin air. Kudos again to Nagle for writing in financial-speak that leaves us to believe the characters know what they are talking. We certainly don’t. All we know is people are leaping off tall buildings and proving that they can fly.
As the play concludes all three stories come tumbling down. Bobbie loses her home. The Dutch start murdering the Lenape. And Lehman Brothers fails. Nagle makes the parallels clear. What she does not do is to give us a chance to connect with any one character in a way that reveals an inner journey. While the main character is Jane, even she does not have a chance to reveal much more than is on the page. All the characters feel more like symbols than real people.
The cast is fine indeed and carry out their duties without a hitch under the sensitive and smooth direction by Laurie Woolery. They are an exquisite ensemble. And the stories get told. There are moments here you cannot unsee, and when you step out onto the streets after leaving the theatre you may well reflect on the fact that we are living on stolen land that was never “owned” by the Lenape. They were the caretakers who were themselves not taken care of.
In that way this play succeeds. Big time.
WITH Rainbow Dickerson, Elizabeth Frances, David Kelly, Jeffrey King, Enrico Nassi, Jessica Ranville, Joe Tapper, Sheila Tousey, and Rex Young.
The production features scenic design by Marcelo Martínez García, costume design by Lux Haac, lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.
Executive Director and Co-founder of The Lenape Center Joe Bakerservesas as cultural consultant.
Through December 23 at the Public Theater. TICKETS