The three-sentence summary of the life of John Wesley Powell is impressive. A lifelong geologist, he became a member of the Illinois Natural History Society by age 25, and was gifted enough to eventually become the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Museum. An opponent of slavery and supporter of the Union, he wore the navy blues and lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh. Later, he led a U.S.-sanctioned expedition down the Colorado River, charting the Grand Canyon.
Other achievements and discoveries would follow, but Men on Boats, a play by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed for HomeGrown Theatre by Nick Garcia, centers on his time on the Colorado, and paints a portrait of the 10 men who participated in that journey that can't be found in history books. For one thing, every actor in the play is a woman, and many of them are women of color.
"[Backhaus] wanted to write this adventure, but she has this theatrical way of writing. In and of itself, it's not a straightforward historical story," said Jaime Nebeker, who plays Powell's second in command, William Dunn, and is HGT's managing director.
Writing the play, Backhaus pulled directly from Powell's expedition log, which Powell, played charismatically by Veronica Von Tobel, references regularly in the play, and no, the playwright did not intend for the women actors to play their characters as women. Rather, gender has been layered on top of the history, leaving it up to the audience to make sense of that wrinkle as it will, and at the Aug. 10 opening night, the audience reacted with hoots, laughter and sometimes boot-stomping.
The central conflict in Men on Boats is between the men and the river, which is at first a source of joy and adventure, and ends a source of hardship and deprivation. The Grand Canyon is deep and long, and when food and supplies start to run scarce, the characters' big personalities start to clash. Powell's relentless optimism goes from charming to insufferable, pitting him against Dunn. The Howland brothers (Rachel Dickerson and Jz Marrero) are fractious with pretty much everybody. Comic relief, even in the hardest of times, comes from Patti O'Hara's Old Shady, Powell's brother and one dry coot.
By laminating women into the roles of historical men, the playwright and HGT have created something Zen that feels like an open invitation to critique at every bend in the river.
"What does this play mean, now that women have the opportunity to take a journey like this? How is manifest destiny different in this play than it was for men? What a great opportunity for these men, but wow, what a great opportunity for women to take this journey first and be sanctioned by the government," Nebeker said.
The play was well-met by the audience, and was at its strongest when exploring characters and doing worldbuilding. A subplot involving the discovery of a previous, ill-fated expedition down the Colorado teased a ghost story, and Powell's physical limitations on account of his missing arm—and how that played into his sense of purpose—were gripping. Characters were well-drawn, smart and flawed. Other elements bordered on tedium: The cast was, at 10, historically accurate and very large; and while river-rafting scenes were welcome moments of high energy, they often felt non-essential, which is ironic, given Men on Boats is a play about river rafting. One scene involving Native Americans was so on-the-nose that it felt like it had been pulled from another, more didactic, play entirely.
The audience for this play is anyone who cares about theater. HGT draws from an ocean of modern and contemporary plays that touches audiences where they live. Its last production, She Kills Monsters, trafficks in grief and Dungeons & Dragons, and Men on Boats is a romp through the wilds that challenges historical biases when it comes to gender. Its next, the eighth-annual Horrific Puppet Affair, is hands-down one of the best ways to celebrate Halloween. All of it is creative and done for the love of the game.
"If we get a kick out of it, our audiences are going to get a kick out of it. We get to start with us and our interests. If you're making theater that excites you, it shows to the audience," Nebeker said.