SpeakEasy Stage rewrites history with gender-bending “Men on Boats”
In 1869 explorer John Wesley Powell set out with a small crew of white men to chart the Grand Canyon. SpeakEasy Stage has taken that whitewashed history and turned it on its head with “Men on Boats,” a roaring romp that portrays the journey with a diverse, gender bending cast. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’s one caveat was: no white, cis-gendered men. The result is an exploratory boat ride that’s much more fun than the original journey.
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Robin Javonne Smith, who plays Powell, perfectly captures the explorer’s lust for adventure and sometimes misguided optimism. “The show has been compared to ‘Hamilton’ in that there’s this question of who tells your story,” she says.
These are not only the people who would have been excluded from the 1869 expedition, but also the people who are often excluded from the arts. In one swoop, “Men on Boats” re-appropriates the historical narrative and the stage.
Smith grew up loving the outdoors, much like Powell, and hopes that the performance will encourage the audience to explore their own canyons. “I really love going on hikes and I feel like there’s this stereotype that African Americans don’t go outdoors or visit national parks,” she says.
Though gender is the groundbreaking change in the show, it’s not the defining character of it. Humor and history guide the piece. The script is artfully arranged to blend both history, including direct quotes from Powell’s journals, and contemporary language. The characters often act with a childlike excited curiosity, which brings out the youthful wonder in all of us.
The physicality of the boats is a stroke of genius. Three characters standing in a line hoist a thin, flexible, diamond shaped wood frame around them. The frame (boat) moves raucously as they encounter waves, and even waterfalls. This not only added physical comedy to the performance, but gave an accurate representation of what paddling a small boat down a huge river would’ve felt like.
For Powell’s men, the journey would have been tense, arduous and physically and emotionally draining. We see that in the contemporary cast as well, just with more songs and laughter. The satirical show points out problematic elements of the history beyond gender and race. One scene depicts the explorers asking irritated Native Americans for food, another reveals that Powell’s crew was largely forgotten and he had a man-made lake named after him before being equally tossed aside.
“Men on Boats” runs until October 7. It’s an enjoyable and important show for anyone with a sense of humor, a sense of adventure or sense of equality. Director Dawn Simmons says, “I hope you look at the people on stage and become curious about their stories and their adventures.”