The very best thing about Men on Boats, and there are many contenders for this title, is watching an ensemble of stellar female performers traverse the tricky terrain of American westward expansion — all while cheerfully hoisting the bows of makeshift watercraft around their waists. Jaclyn Backhaus’s riff on the dude culture of nineteenth-century exploration, which premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s 2015 Summerworks festival, is now at Playwrights Horizons, in a revival directed by Will Davis. It’s a smart, funny, poignant meditation on gender and historical memory, speaking as convincingly to our own time as any drama set in the present day.
Men on Boats takes inspiration from John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Colorado River, a landmark effort in mapping the American Southwest and the first successful passage of white Americans through the Grand Canyon. Powell’s crew endured ship-smashing rapids, gnawing hunger, encounters with rattlesnakes, and disappointing defections from within their ranks. Eventually, on the brink of starvation, the straggling survivors euphorically exited the canyon and entered history.
Ten women inhabit the roles of Powell and his crew, bluffing and blustering their way through physical danger and tense disputes. Using choral speech and exaggerated choreography, the cast navigates a bare stage, surrounded by images of craggy Western landscapes. They loudly christen rocky outcroppings with their own names — and, just as loudly, question one another’s survival skills and common sense. Powell (Kelly McAndrew) insists that the group’s ships can weather the waterfalls ahead and that their provisions will last; Dunn (Kristen Sieh) aggressively challenges Powell’s authority. Fellow travelers — Hawkins (Jocelyn Bioh) and the gruff, understated show-stealer, Sumner (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) — attempt to soothe egos and push ahead.
The distance between those macho white explorers and the racially diverse group of women playing them turns the performance into a study in learned male behaviors. It’s hilarious, but also pointed, as Backhaus shows us the link between the pressures of white masculinity and the drive for territorial conquest. And, even if an accident of timing, it’s especially poignant to watch women revel in this classically American saga at a time when the first woman in U.S. history just accepted a major party’s presidential nomination — invoking the question of how our national drama might have been different with more women in charge.
Or with more women telling the story: In a poetic final scene, Backhaus widens the narrative lens, suggesting that all histories — heroic or merely self-aggrandizing — belong, ultimately, not to the doers but to the tellers. (That is: to us.)
Men on Boats
By Jaclyn Backhaus
416 West 42nd Street
Through August 14