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Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 5, 2023

Photo Caption: Rainbow Dickerson, Sheila Tousey,
Jeffrey King, David Kelly, and Joe Tapper

Photo by Joan Marcus
The Public Theater in New York City regularly makes it a point to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which it stands is the original homeland of the Lenape people. How fitting it is, then, that playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle's Manahatta opened there tonight. It is a play that intricately and intriguingly interlaces three pertinent stories, two of them about the members of a contemporary Lenape family, while the third takes us back to the 17th century when the island that is now referred to as Manhattan was "purchased" by Peter Minuit on behalf of the Dutch West India Company from a group of Lenape leaders for whom the very concept of land ownership did not exist.

Director Laurie Woolery, who also did the honors for earlier productions of the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Yale Repertory Theatre, does a terrific job of managing the leaps through space and time in what is essentially one seamless sweep across 105 intermissionless minutes.

The play opens on storyline #1. It begins in 2002 when Jane Snake (Elizabeth Frances), top of her class at MIT and Stanford Business School, shows up for an interview for a job as an investment banker with a major Wall Street firm. Her sneering would-be boss, Joe (Joe Tapper), dismisses her with utmost condescension until she convinces him of her unswerving single-mindedness, informing him she has opted to be at this interview instead of with her father back in Oklahoma, where he is having open heart surgery even as they speak. Impressed with her determination, Joe relents and hires her. There she will put in countless stress-filled hours, her eyes focused on climbing the ladder to success while she all but relinquishes her ties to the family and friends she left behind.

Storyline #2 begins at the home of Jane's mother Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) and her sister Debra (Rainbow Dickerson) in Oklahoma. It's just a few days later. Unfortunately, Jane and Debra's father did not survive the operation, and Jane has flown in just long enough to attend the funeral. The tension between the sisters is thick, for it seems to Debra that Jane has not only walked away from her family but has turned her back on her Lenape heritage in favor of life in the fast lane.

Gradually, the play unfolds as a search for identity, one that takes us back in time and into storyline #3, where we meet up with the white interlopers who demand more and more from the fur-trading native population until they seek to drive them out of Manahatta altogether. This element of the play does take on the tone of a history lesson, albeit a bitingly satiric one, but it is what ties together the contemporary plot elements. That the cast members take on roles as characters in the present and the past (transforming before our eyes) makes the theme all the more concrete, with Jeffrey King and David Kelly joining Joe Tapper in the roles of the historic white men as well as those who interact with Jane Snake in present-time Manhattan. To lessen the imbalance, Enrico Nassi portrays the one Lenape friend Jane has in all three locales.

Thanks to the razor-sharp writing, directing, and solid performances all around, Manahatta is a powerful discourse (the playwright is also an attorney, specializing in tribal sovereignty) on the lives of the Lenape during the colonial era and through to the present day. But be sure to listen closely as the zingers fly, or you might miss interactions like this one between two of the colonist interlopers discussing how they might manage things when they drive out the Native Americans and, with them, the fur trade on which they depend. "We have no capital," worries one, to which the second coolly responds, "We have Negroes."

So, yes, the polemics are strong, but what takes it beyond such acerbic moments is the singular performance by Sheila Tousey as Jane and Debra's mother. It is she who carries the play's social justice messaging into the realm of its underlying humanity. Her Bobbie, truly an Elder in the best sense of that word, is the heart and soul of the play. And when worlds collide, as they inevitably must, she is the family's rock, able to keep her feet planted in both the native world and the white world. "Just remember," she wisely notes, "you can talk their talk, walk their walk, but the moment you forget who you are, they have you. And then you're walkin' in one world, not two."

Through December 23, 2023
Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: