Review: ‘Manahatta’ Shows the Brute Forces of New York—Then and Now

Audiences attending New York theater are used to hearing the announcement at the beginning of many productions—that the venue they are sitting stands on land that was the original homeland of the Lenape people. In the program for the Public Theater’s production of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s 2013 play, Manahatta (to Dec. 23), the statement has grown in declarative emphasis. “The Public stands in honor of the first people and our ancestors…We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory. We honor the generations of stewards, and we pay our respects to the many diverse indigenous peoples still connected to this land.”

The play, directed by Laurie Woolery, takes place in two time zones and places—the year of the financial crash in 2008 in Manhattan and Oklahoma, and then 17th century Manahatta (popularly known as Manhattan Island), where Dutch settlers land, and—first by inquisitive charm, then by brute force—displace the Lenape. The play contrasts the echoing themes of the two different eras: the violent centrifugal spin of money, racism, trade, power, and identity. The company of actors play different characters with similar characteristics in both eras.

Present in both old and modern storylines are the Lenape—a people in the 17th century selling furs and at home in what we know today as Downtown Manhattan. In the 17th century, we see the incipient forces of capitalism destroy the Lenape in their own homeland; in 2008, we see a modern Lenape family in Oklahoma threatened with losing their home because of the financial crash.

The central character in 2008, Jane Snake (Elizabeth Frances), is the ambitious kid-done-good—leaving Oklahoma to pursue her ambition for a career in banking. In Manhattan, she encounters initially dismissiveness and racism from her obnoxious boss Joe (Joe Tapper). He at least apologizes; even more grandstanding and puffed-of-cheek is Dick (Jeffrey King). Back in the 17th century, Tapper plays Jakob, an ambassador for trade with the Lenape, who realizes his bosses do not want to play by any rules. David Kelly is a man of the cloth in the 17th century, and a home loan manager in the present day. King in the 17th century plays Peter Minuit, who orchestrated the purchase of Manahatta for the Dutch East India Company—bombastic and ruthless in both time zones.

In Lenape-old-times, Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Enrico Nassi), with Le-le-wa’-you (Frances), Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) want to set up an honest trade with the Dutch, while in 2008 the excellent Tousey—wry, careworn, impatient, not much given to sympathies and niceties—is handling the grief of losing her husband, with the likely loss of her home, while Nassi plays Luke, Jane’s friend-maybe-more, who is also involved in the family drama about the loss of the home.

The set is a puzzling jumble that stays fixed for both eras: a desk that is meant to be both a family dinner table and symbol of big business, oddly-shaped rocks here and there to signify the 17th century, and a baffling bank of mirrors. The actors are engaging, but struggle to plausibly pilot a rickety story with elements of past and present day placed in too-forced-a-conversation with each other.

On the 2008 side of things, if you’ve seen Enron, Margin Call, or The Lehman Trilogy, or read any article about the financial crash, you will not learn anything new here, indeed may bridle at yet another —bar the usual vista of people rushing about the stage shouting at each other about things only known to those who work in the world of finance.

Manahatta is so focused on big themes, it leaves the more domestic or character-focused, arguably more compelling ones, behind. Jane is a fascinating character who we barely get to know. Who is she, and how has she forged the path she has? How is this family coping with loss? How is the mother coping with grief? How did the 17th century Lenape experience their displacement? There is an implication that Jane is struggling with the intersection of identities (Lenape, regular sibling, big city financial whizz, a sole brown face surrounded by white) she is operating under, but the play doesn’t dig too far into her experience of it. Could the big business guys be more than cartoon bullies? What of Luke and Jane?

For it all its puzzles, frenzied signposting, and structural shortcomings, the play makes a final resonant point about displacement, kinship, and home, powerfully illustrating that all the brute forces of rampant capitalism enacted upon the Lenape in the 17th century are still very much present today—as all too many know all too well.

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