‘Men on Boats’ navigates grand journey

SHARE ‘Men on Boats’ navigates grand journey

Director Will Davis offers suggestions during rehearsal for ‘Men On Boats’ at the American Theater Company in Chicago, Wednesday, December 21, 2016. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

It was in an Arizona elementary school classroom where playwright Jaclyn Backhaus first became acquainted with explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) and his 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers and into the then uncharted Grand Canyon.

‘Men on Boats’

When: Jan. 6-Feb. 12

Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

Tickets: $20-$38

Info: atcweb.org

And it was at home where her father, a scientist, offered up his copy of Powell’s journals full of beautiful lithographs of canyon scenes for her to page through.

Powell’s story struck a chord and remained packed away in the back of her mind until 2013 when Backhaus began thinking about writing a historical play, and it became her go to idea for “Men on Boats,” which is making its Midwest debut at American Theater Company under the direction of Will Davis.

Powell, who lost his right arm in the Civil War’s Battle of Shiloh, was a striking figure with his wild hair and beard. A legendary explorer, he was a champion of exploration and science, a pairing well before its time. The 11-man, 4-boat Colorado expedition lasted three months and covered 900 miles wending through towering canyons, over sudden waterfalls and rushing rapids. It was the first U.S. sanctioned expedition to chart the course of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Avi Roque, Sarai Rodriguez and Erin Barlow rehearse ‘Men On Boats’ at the American Theater Company. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Avi Roque, Sarai Rodriguez and Erin Barlow rehearse ‘Men On Boats’ at the American Theater Company. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

But what began for Backhaus as a very true to form male-driven adaptation of Powell’s journals eventually morphed into a meditation on gender and historical memory that offered a fresh take on new possibilities for the stage.

“When I was close to finishing the first draft, I realized the play was filled with characters I would like to play on stage but would never be allowed to,” Backhaus recalls. “So I was writing it from this very wistful place.”

This then led to questions about how the play would be cast and inspired Backhaus to include a casting note: “The characters in ‘Men on Boats’ were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender-fluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”

Will Davis | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Will Davis | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

The mission these characters are on is thrillingly real filled with action, humor and history. The actors taking the trip down the river are Erin Barlow, Lawren Carter, Arti Ishak, Brittney Love Smith, Sarai Rodriguez, Kelly O’Sullivan, Avi Roque, Stephanie Shum, Kelli Simpkins and Lauren Sivak. Davis refers to the cast as “a solid group of people on a wild adventure together.”

“Men on Boats” has drawn some comparisons to “Hamilton” in its non-traditional casting and anachronistic dialogue that often nods more to today’s language style than that of the late 1800s.

“Language was my first entry point into these characters and this world,” Backhaus notes. “I asked the question: What does it mean for me, a 21st century woman, to be looking back, and how can I unpack through myself these events that happened.”

“Men on Boats” debuted at New York’s Clubbed Thumb and later moved to the Playwrights Horizons. Davis, who has a physical theater background, came to the play early on and was instrumental in bringing the treacherous river journey to life on stage.

“Aesthetically and artistically Jaclyn and I really clicked in trying to approach this material from a new direction,” say Davis, who is in his first season as artistic director of American Theater. “I felt the right amount of terror about it which is a very creative place to be.”

Backhaus admits she had no idea how the play would be staged and was thrilled that Davis worked “from a place of bold choices. He’s willing to venture into the unknown and uncover something with the collective that is really powerful.”

All of the events depicted in “Men on Boats” actually happened (although the timeline has been tweaked in places). As part of her research and a counterpoint to Powell’s version of how things went down, Backhaus also read accounts of the expedition written by Powell’s mates.

“Powell writes with this heightened language that is beautiful. He wants to be a poet and explorer and does get swept up into some self-glorification,” Backhaus says. “It was important to check in with the other guys to counterpoint his account.”

The now New York-based Backhaus says she has been to the “rim of the Grand Canyon and a little bit inside.” Would she ever want to follow Powell’s lead down the river and into the canyon?

“I loved writing the play but I think I might be a little too chicken to actually reenact the mission,” she says laughing. “But who knows? Maybe if I bulked up and got fit, it could be on my bucket list in a few years.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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