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Manahatta

A fascinating play that combines the Dutch purchase of the island of Manhattan in 1626 from the Delaware Lenape with the Wall Street home-mortgage crisis of 2008 where many disenfranchised people lost their homes.

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Elizabeth Frances and Joe Tapper in a scene from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta now at The Public Theater, just blocks from where most of the story takes place, is a fascinating combination of American history and recent events. Nagle who is a Native American has written a play that combines the Dutch purchase of the island of Manhattan in 1626 from the Delaware Lenapes with the Wall Street home-mortgage crisis of 2008 where many disenfranchised people lost their homes. She also includes the contemporary Lenape community living today in Anadarko, Oklahoma, after they had been evicted from their Texas reservation. While the three time-frames of the play run concurrently, they all come together in a devastating ending that indicts the capitalist system as well as how Native Americans have been treated in this country.

The play challenges the audience for several reasons. While the script states the story begins in 2002 when Jane Snake, a Stanford and MIT graduate and a member of the Lenape community from Oklahoma, goes to an interview on Wall Street for a job at an investment bank which turns out to be Lehman Brothers, the program and the text do not reveal either fact or that we are six years from the Wall Street meltdown until this is explained at almost the very end. The play is double cast with each of the contemporary characters playing their equivalent in the time of the Dutch rule in New Amsterdam. Usually the appropriate costuming by Lux Haac tells us where we are until characters begin showing up with the wrong outfit for that century from the previous scene.

Rainbow Dickerson, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly and Joe Tapper in a scene from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The single set by Marcello Martínez García simultaneously represents the Wall Street offices of the bank starting in 2002, Jane’s mother Bobbie’s Anadarko home in Oklahoma, at the same time, and the hunting grounds of the Manahatta Lenape as well as offices of the Dutch West India Company in 1626. In addition, the play assumes familiarity with such terms as tranche, ARM, RMBS groups, CDOs, securitization, liquidity, equity, derivatives and leverage.  While this may confuse some viewers, a great of this can be gained from the context. Nevertheless, the play is an engrossing and powerful story of greed, naiveté and being an outsider in a society like ours.

When Jane goes to her interview in Manhattan, she is fulfilling a dream of her father to see the home of his Lenape ancestors including the Broad Way, Wall Street and Pearl Street which were Native American trading grounds in 1626. Although Jane gets the job among rather insulting white partners, she is not happy with working with mortgages. She is unaware that her mother, saddled with debt from her late husband’s final operation, is about to take a mortgage back home in Oklahoma using her home as collateral, not knowing that the risk she is running is that she could lose her home.

Elizabeth Frances and Rainbow Dickerson in a scene from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The brokers are Luke, an Oklahoma Lenape, sweet on Jane who treats him like a friend, and his father Michael, the Native minister. While the Dutch under director Peter Minuit plot to buy Manahatta from the Lenape who have no sense of ownership, Michael and Luke attempt to keep Bobbie from going under financially and the Wall Street bubble is about to burst. All three stories become one by the end of the play in a shocking resolution unless you are well-versed in the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Under the direction of Laurie Woolery, who has directed the play in the previous 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the 2020 Yale Repertory Theater productions, the cast of seven give excellent parallel renditions in the two eras, our own and the seventeenth century, as well as keeping the tension mounting throughout. Four of the five actors playing Lenapes are actual Native Americans which adds authenticity to the production. As the protagonist Jane Snake, Elizabeth Frances is cool, calm, collected and ambitious as she climbs the corporate ladder on Wall Street. As Le-le-wa’-you in 1626, she is curious and daring, similar qualities.

David Kelly and Enrico Nassi in a scene from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

As her sister Debra back in Oklahoma, the no nonsense Rainbow Dickerson is always taking her more successful sibling down a peg or two, and as Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i in the Dutch period she also is more realistic than her sister. As their mother Bobbie, Sheila Tousey is reticent, taciturn and proud, just as she is as the Native American mother during the Dutch period. Enrico Nassi is sensitive and emotional as Luke, the Oklahoma loan manager who also has an unrequired love for Jane. As Se-ket-tu-may-qua in 1626, Le-le-wa’-you’s partner, he has a great deal of integrity as he sees the Dutch intruding on their way of life and works to stop them.

As the Wall Street types, Jeffrey King is commanding and imperious as Dick, the CEO of the company that Jane works for, and equally demanding and insidious as Peter Minuit, the head of the Dutch West India Company in 1626, while Joe Tapper is arrogant and politically incorrect as Jane’s boss and a toady as assistant to Peter. David Kelly plays two religious leaders, Jonas Michaelius sent by the Dutch West India Company to convert the Lenapes, as well their leader in Anadarko, Oklahoma. As such he is also an Anadarko manager of the bank in Oklahoma that tries to help out Bobbie in her financial difficulties but eventually makes things worse.

Jeffrey King, Elizabeth Frances and Joe Tapper in a scene from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Manahatta” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta is a powerful and insightful play that impresses with its themes and content. The play’s complex structure eventually becomes evident as well as coherent. An unusual play which conflates the Dutch treatment of the Lenapes in 1626 with the Wall Street meltdown in 2008, it is both prescient and relevant. Manahatta is a work that is worthy of your time and you will be sorry if you miss it.

Manahatta (through December 23, 2023)

The Public Theater

Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.publictheater.org

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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