MANAHATTA Comes Home, Late But Still Rich in Relevance


Rainbow Dickerson, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly and Joe Tapper | Photo: Joan Marcus

Joey Sims
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December 7, 2023 1:18 PM

Manahatta has a long history at The Public. Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle developed it as part of the theater’s 2012-2013 Emerging Writer’s Group. Then a developmental staging followed in 2014, part of the now-defunct Public Studio program. The play went on to productions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Yale Rep but only now, ten years later, has wound its way back to one of the Public’s main stages.

That it took The Public a decade to produce Manahatta speaks to the theater’s often sluggish pipeline for new plays. (In fairness, some EWG plays have moved quicker — 2019 fellow Ryan J. Haddad’s Dark Disabled Stories was part of last season, and Jordans by Ife Ofujjbi, also a 2019 alum, is set for spring.) Timing is a tricky thing with new work, and the slow path to production can prove lethal for a play’s relevance. 

For Manahatta, the delay is a mixed blessing. When Nagle wrote the play, she was ahead of debates which have since taken greater hold: the centering of underrepresented voices in historical narratives, the cyclical preservation of uber-wealthy elites by our institutions, and the essential inhumanity underpinning capitalist structures. Still, if the ideas don’t exactly shock, Manahatta plays effectively as a reframing of these conversations from a specifically Native perspective, cogently tying present-day ills back to their colonialist roots.

Jeffrey King, Elizabeth Frances, and Joe Tapper | Photo: Joan Marcus

To mount this argument, Nagle’s narrative shifts between past and present. In 2008, Jane Snake (Elizabeth Frances) moves to her ancestral Lenape homeland of Manahatta — or, New York — to work as an investment banker on Wall Street. Back home in Oklahoma, her mother Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) struggles, in secret, with imminent foreclosure on the family home. 

And in 1626, Lenape merchant Le-le-wa'-you (Frances again) encounters a settler from the Dutch West India Company, and finds herself at the center of the Company’s theft of her homeland and massacre of the Delaware Lenape people. 

The play powerfully collides two distinct time periods into one theatrical space. Past and present weave together in Laurie Woolery’s fluid staging, with the performers shifting seamlessly between multiple roles. The progression of the Company’s takeover of Manahatta mirrors, in the present day, the creeping disaster of the 2008 financial crisis. Nagle smartly lets this theatrical concept speak for itself, never underlining the core points around ownership trampling upon the individual. 

Where the play stumbles is in theatricalizing Wall Street and clarifying Jane’s motivations for being there. Jane states that she wants to open the door for more Natives in the financial world, but also indicates an awareness of the looming crash and the devastation it will wreak. These contradictions can obviously co-exist, but Nagle never delves into them. Is Jane simply swept along by the excitement, or the money? Does she justify her success as taking back a piece of what was stolen? Is she just in denial? These questions are left dangling. 

Enrico Nassi and David Kelly | Photo: Joan Marcus

Meanwhile Jane’s white superiors are caricatures, which works fine until one abruptly apologizes for acting “ignorant” and expresses the importance of Jane’s perspective, a turnaround that comes out of nowhere. And Woolery’s otherwise fine staging suggests, unintentionally and humorously, that three people total are employed at this bank. 

Nagle is on firmer footing with Jane’s family in Oklahoma. The conflict between Jane and her sister Debra (an excellent Rainbow Dickerson), who takes care of their mother while Snake is absent, feel truthful and familiar. The family feels lost somewhere in-between honoring their Lenape heritage and surviving in a capitalist world, a rich tension. Tousey brings comforting warmth to Jane’s mother Bobbie, who wants her children to thrive but also anguishes at Jane’s increasing distance from Lenape culture. 

Manahatta is an ideas play at heart — a necessary reframing of core American narratives. But it always compels and, despite sometimes awkward writing, finds its heart in one fractured family’s struggles to navigate a stolen world. 

Manhatta is currently in performances at The Public through December 23. For more information and tickets, click here.

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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