Men on Boats 


Through Sunday, Feb. 24

Umstead Park UCC, Raleigh

In one of the most stirring developments in recent years in American theater, marginalized communities have risen up to lay hands on stories they were historically excluded from. Hamilton is far from the first of such enterprises. In Terrence McNally’s controversial 1997 drama, Corpus Christi, a group of gay men reenacted the Passion Play, claiming that Christ belonged to them as well. Locally, all-African-American productions of Our Town and The Cherry Orchard have underscored the universality of those texts and the abilities of artists long denied equal access to the stage.

Jacklyn Backhaus’s humorous yet critical 2016 play, Men on Boats, makes similar gestures with the tale of John Wesley Powell’s geographic expedition of 1869, which was the first successful mapping and navigation trek by white explorers through the Grand Canyon. In her program notes, director Jules Odendahl-James reminds us that the only presence women were permitted, in the historical expedition, were in the names of the boats. 

But when costume designer Emily Johns and a sterling all-female cast take on ten explorers, from mountain men and cartographers to a Yorkshire dandy out for a nineteenth-century version of glamping, the diversity of their human experiences clearly transcends traditional gender constructs. When designer Sonya Drum places the production on a set depicting the backstage of a theatrical production (like Theatre in the Park’s recent A Life in the Theatre), Men on Boats takes us behind the deceptively unified cultural construct of history as well.

This ensemble piece features a number of vivid performances. Faye Goodwin is unsinkable as the resilient—if sometimes overly optimistic—leader, Major Powell, and Mara Thomas gives a bedrock performance as Powell’s foil, William Dunn. Newcomer Tori Grace Nichols lends earthy authenticity to soldier and explorer John Sumner.

As the chill—and chilly—Ute chief Tsauwiat and his wife, known as “the bishop,” Johanna Burwell and Ariel Griffin Smith ably demonstrate that revenge is best served cold. Sarah Koop convinces as Goodman, the British fish-out-of-water, and veteran Page Purgar animates Hawkins, the perplexed camp cook. Jessica Flemming, Candace Hescock, and Marleigh Purgar McDonald strongly support a show that demonstrates how truly captivating theater can be, once the traditional trappings of gender finally get sent up the creek.

One reply on “There Are No Men in Men on Boats, an Alternate History of Grand Canyon Exploration”

  1. Thank you for this glowing review. The Justice Theater Project and the entire cast and crew should be praised for all their hard work on this fun and thought-provoking show. That being said, the casting note from the writer Jaclyn Backhaus says: “The characters in Men On Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not.” This does not automatically mean an ‘all-female cast’. There are many other sex/gender identities beyond ‘cisgender male’. Please edit this review to accurately reflect the cast composition. There are Trans/genderqueer/genderfluid performers and crew members in this production. To say ‘all-female cast’ is more than a mere oversight, it is erasure of a lived experience, which is what the entire show seeks to circumvent.

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