The intimate Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the place to discover new plays that explore important but under-exposed issues.
“Manahatta,” by Mary Kathryn Nagle, mingles catastrophic events in two eras: the so-called purchase of Manhattan by the Dutch in 1626 and the stock market crash of 2008.
The Lenape tribe lived in Manahatta, now called Manhattan, before being forcibly moved to Oklahoma. The play focuses on the driving energy of Jane Snake, a Stanford-educated Lenape mathematician. Her ambition leads her to Manhattan, her ancestral home, to tackle the modern world at a wealthy investment company.
Like many uprooted people, Jane is torn between her traditional upbringing and a passionate desire to rise to the top of the moneyed world, perhaps as a form of revenge for all that was taken from her people centuries ago.
As directed by Laurie Woolery, the action flows smoothly between the 17th and 21st centuries, and jumps from early Manahatta to modern Oklahoma and Manhattan, specifically Wall Street.
Here’s a surprising history lesson. Where Wall Street is now located the Dutch settlers built an actual wall to keep the Natives from invading. Broadway was a broad path running north-south that Native traders used for bringing their beaver pelts into town.
Unfortunately, in spite of a fine cast led by Tanis Parenteau as Jane, “Manahatta” lacks nuance and the characters are stereotypes. All the villains are white males, and all the innocent victims are Native Americans.
The Shakespeare Festival seems determined to discover the great Native American play. Some day soon that play will be brought to light.