Gender-bending cast re-stages old pioneer tropes of American history

Men in Boats
The cast of Speakeasy Stage Company's current production of "Men in Boats" (from left): Ally Dawson, Veronika Duerr and Robin Javonne Smith. Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

[The following article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2017 issue of Boston Spirit magazine. Subscribe for free today.]

Manifest Destiny was never this much fun.

That’s because playwright Jaclyn Backhaus plucks the “man” out of the term for the 19th-century belief that U.S. expansion West was justifiable and inevitable. Her off-Broadway comedy “Men on Boats” is an adventure tale about an actual 1869 expedition to chart the course of the Colorado River, brought to life by a gender-bending cast of diverse performers.

“Men on Boats,” which opens the new season at SpeakEasy Stage Company and runs September 8 through October 7, specifies that women or trans actors be cast as the men from various walks of life who embarked on the historical expedition led by their one-armed captain, John Wesley Powell. It’s not stunt casting, says Backhaus, but a way of looking a history through a new lens.

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Directed by Dawn Meredith Simmons, whose many Boston credits include shows at Theater Offensive, Company One and Actors Shakespeare Project, “Men on Boats” features a large ensemble cast of women, LGBT and actors of color. Like “Hamilton,” the subversive casting adds an important layer—even in a comedy—that provokes questions of who gets to write history and whose stories are being told.

The cast for the Speakeasy production is headed by Robin Javonne Smith, a veteran of Ryan Landry’s Gold Dust Orphans and Beau Jest Moving Theatre, making her Speakeasy debut as Powell. Another local performer, Mal Malme, co-founder of Queer Soup Theater—which is currently touring “The Pineapple Project,” a play for kids about gender diversity, created and performed by Mal and Becca A. Lewis—plays Old Shady, Powell’s older brother and a Civil War vet. Trans actor Cody Sloan, whose recent credits include “Amadeus” (Moonbox Productions) and “Gay Shorts” (Open Theatre Project), makes his SpeakEasy debut in “Men on Boats” playing Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa.

As a native of Phoenix, Backhaus learned about Powell’s journey in school and at home, since her father was an avid reader of history and adventure.

“I wanted to do an adventure play with a physical journey behind it and take the audience on a ride,” says Backhaus in a phone interview from her home in Queens. She read Powell’s many journals that chronicled the expedition. She also traveled to the Grand Canyon and sought out museums that might house additional archives and essays from the expedition. But mostly it’s Powell’s own records that provided the basis of her script. “He had a flair for heightened language; the characters jump off the pages and I thought it would be a fun thing to explore.” she says.

Midway through her first draft, it occurred to Backhaus that her play would be enhanced if there were no men onstage; that women and queer performers would bring another level of humor, adventure and understanding to the material. Developing “Men on Boats” at New York City’s Clubbed Thumb with director Will Davis helped Backhaus “grow the play” and deepened its complexity, she says. The idea was not about lampooning masculinity or creating camp but using the context of an epic adventure to raise questions such as: was manifest destiny about opportunity or exploitation?

But the play is true to the spirit of adventure and, after a while, notes Backhaus, one forgets that it’s women and trans men playing the roles. “It’s part of the truth of the play. There are different acting styles, too; any successful mission and any successful play needs a wide variety of people—a union, a community—because the trip was all about men moving in a group while in an isolated region.”

Historically, there are many instances of women (trans or not) passing as men to infiltrate arenas traditionally closed to them: jobs, war, adventure and exploration among them, though this often went unrecognized and unrecorded. “Trans people have always existed; it is powerful to watch a trans person in this play” because it deepens the material by turning the prism, says Backhaus, who studied theater at New York University. “Men on Boats” premiered during the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival at the Wild Project in June 2015. Clubbed Thumb and  Playwrights Horizons remounted the comedy for a special engagement last year at Playwrights Horizons. Now it’s being performed by companies around the country.

“One of the most exciting productions was at Arizona State University, near the Grand Canyon,” says Backhaus, adding how inspiring it was to “watch 18- and 19-year-olds get the message of diversity and inclusion early on.” A rollicking adventure tale “shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of anyone,” she says. “Neither should all the joy and drudgery of being on the river—of being seasick but triumphant.”