Jeffrey Eric Jenkins/review | Station production explores gendered history

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins/review | Station production explores gendered history

By JEFFREY ERIC JENKINS

When playwright Jaclyn Backhaus began writing "Men on Boats," the story of an 1869 expedition to chart the geography of the Green and Colorado rivers, she paused to consider why she was writing on this topic, which had long fascinated her.

"I realized," Backhaus said, "I was writing a play full of characters that I would never get to play myself. So, then I started wondering, 'what if I could play these characters?'"

As a result, Backhaus created a lively, humorous play with 12 male characters and one female character, all of which are performed by women — maybe. To be clear, the play calls for actors who are "female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid and/or non-gender-conforming."

In Latrelle Bright's production at the Station Theatre, all of the diverse cast, except one, use gender pronouns known as "female-identifying" in their program bios.

Does any of this "gender stuff" really matter? It certainly does to Backhaus and her director as they attempt to reframe the narrative and open a story of white, male dominance to a larger population. And it should matter to all of us, if we hope to have a more inclusive society.

Based on the journals of John Wesley Powell, a Civil War hero who led the expedition, "Men on Boats" intersperses high-stakes adventure scenes with poetic musings drawn from Powell's experience. Powell, who studied and taught natural sciences at Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State University, lost most of his right arm in the war, which might not make him the ideal candidate to lead a physically challenging survey of the West.

In Backhaus' play, however, Powell is exactly the right person to lead the group. His willingness to listen to the ideas of others, accept challenges to his authority, make difficult decisions, keep a positive attitude and continually inspire his men make it clear that he was a good choice for the job. In telling the story of Powell and his men, the playwright cleverly weaves contemporary linguistic constructs and slang into her play, which brings us closer to the work as it distances us from the historical period.

Using an empty stage with scenery painted on the walls of the tiny Station Theater and carrying a small collection of hand props, the acting company humanizes the men as they struggle to survive their adventure. Director Bright encourages her actors to play to their strengths as they construct fully realized characters in a story that is, by turns, exciting, whimsical, threatening, and poetic.

As with the blockbuster musical, "Hamilton," Backhaus' demand to flip the casting model makes no overt political statements about the patriarchy. Indeed, it allows us to enjoy more fully the heart and humanity of men who were the thrillseekers of their time.

Of particular note, among the hard-working cast are Dominique Allen, Martha A. Mills, Krystal Moya, Courtney Malcolm, Misty Martin and Monica Hoh. There are a few moments when the text gets lost in an actor's delivery, which might cause confusion for those who do not know the play. In one case, a powerful story about the death of a child on the frontier is undermined by being overplayed. Sometimes, less can be more.

At the end of the journey, with triumph tempered by great loss, the men find themselves met by a settler who begins constructing his own narrative about his non-existent role in the drama of the expedition. In that moment, as in others throughout the performance, we are reminded of the way that stories get told, history gets written and why change is needed.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

If you go

What: "Men on Boats"

Where: Station Theatre

When: 7:30 daily through Oct. 20; call box office 217-384-4000 for availability

Tickets: $10 to $15

Topics (1):Theater
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