Clubbed Thumbs’s Men on Boats
I was fortunate enough to catch one of the last performances of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis. I do not know whether there are plans for the production to have another life somewhere or if it will simply be filed away in the communal archive until the memory fades to a few photographs, a blurry video, and a couple of lines of text on brochures, resumes, and biographies. Either way, I am sure that the work will live on in the plays Backhaus has yet to write. Admittedly, I’m familiar with some of her earlier plays, having collaborated on those she wrote for Theater Reconstruction Ensemble. And though it was my first time seeing this play, those boats at Playwrights Horizons seemed to be crewed by the specters of familiar faces. Flashes of Carlos, Jane, and all the rest jumped out at me in little phrases or gestures as the (relatively) fearless pioneers pushed onward to denouement.
It is not particularly insightful to observe that the theater is a place for ghosts. Any high school student reading Macbeth or Our Town could tell you that, but I couldn’t escape the thought. Backhaus’s ghosts were particularly lively and the stage overflowed with spirits for me: from Captain Powell and the historical men on which the play was based, to all the characters of plays that those Clubbed Thumb artists have worked on, and even characters from pioneering films, photography, and illustrations I have digested. This led me, obliquely, to understand this production’s (sometimes too rare) ability to be a piece of theater, to be a conduit for my imagination and guide me to create incredible fantasies with a near empty stage, traveling miles and days and centuries.
Men on Boats was a work that actively navigated the fluidity of history, and for all its raucousness, it sailed this territory with grace and ease. If history is not a series of events and personages, but the interpretation of them, then history is all about power. If you are a straight, white, lower-middle class male—like I am—then the “legitimacy” of your social authority comes from a dominion over the past. So, if history is interpretation and not fact, then alternatives must be made to disrupt the status quo. It’s been a good year for this with the multi-million-dollar show Hamilton at the top of the list. That stage becomes populated by Founding Father ghosts as well as spirits of past and contemporary Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and a panoply of various othered voices. history becomes malleable in the performers’ bodies. And it doesn’t shatter! It isn’t some precious, frail thing. It’s healthy for it to be exercised (exorcised?) with some regularity.
The multiracial cast of non-men in Men on Boats were completely believable as a crew of 19th century white men. Access to those pioneers’ stories can never again be denied on the basis of authenticity: a ridiculous and feeble tactic employed by white men (sometimes unwittingly and sometimes consciously) to conserve their power over history. Through the incredible skill of each performer and Davis’s inspired direction, a world was created that I accepted as completely true. I never felt, for all the silliness inherent in Backhaus’s language, that any of the performers strayed into parody or played at “being a man.” Sometimes a few performers got close, dangerously close, but the team always seemed to remain safely enjoying qualities typically associated with masculinity without dipping into caricature. The production was a reminder that in theater anyone can be anything irrespective of looming social constructs.
Of course, non-male bodies portraying men is anything but novel. It has been part of the long conversation with the memory of the male-dominated boards of the classical. Some of the most muscular attempts to overturn the gender paradigm in my recent memory come from the all-female Shakespeare productions of Phyllida Lloyd and the Donmar Warehouse that liberate those classic plays with grit and precision. The final installment of their trilogy, The Tempest, will be at St. Ann’s Warehouse this January 2017.
Men on Boats was not the first play of its kind, but damn was it fun. It made the past live in a way that makes me feel hopeful for the future and that alone deserves celebration. History is only one facet of our shared cultural memory, and it is healthy for us to be reminded with works like Men on Boats that what has happened is still changing. I look forward to seeing which new works will continue to tear open the past and turn it into something useful; Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, for example. I think we can all agree it is going to break hearts, make heads explode, and fill all of our pieces with the electric throb of a better tomorrow.