A Sobering Distraction

Seated in the center of the second row at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I glanced around, finding myself amidst a crowd chiefly composed of elderly, white adults clad in tweed suits and cashmere cardigans. In vexed murmurs, they discussed the tumultuous state of America. The entire nation’s eyes (it seemed) had been transfixed by the preposterous impeachment trial and Iowa caucus fiascos. A falling nation, a struggling democracy. The despair was palpable, and I can imagine that others, like myself, chose the theater as an escape from this media tumult. The show: Manahatta.

Complete with rocks, a table, a chair, and layered projections, the stage was simple. Yet from its minimalism emerged the nuanced story of Jane Snake, a young, Lenape woman who lands a coveted Wall Street job as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. The play follows Jane as she learns to exist between her turbulent family life in Oklahoma—following the death of her father and clandestine foreclosure of her home—and an equally turbulent professional life in Manhattan, the capitalistic heart of an America on the brink of the 2008 housing crisis. 

Running parallel to this contemporary narrative, or rather baked into it, is the story of the Dutch “purchase” of Manahatta island, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape. The actors, convincing and committed, shift between temporalities, embodying historical and modern versions of themselves in imbricating narratives of violence and extortion, deception and loss. For example, Jane’s mother, Bobbie, mortgages her house to pay for her late husband’s hefty medical bill. Misguided by deceptive banking schemes and unable to pay her loans, Bobbie is forced to foreclose her family home—something she never intended to place under the Western framework of land ownership in the first place. Meanwhile, her historical character is similarly misled by Dutch colonizers, who offer her wampum—a symbolic gift signifying the forging of familial ties to the Lenape, simple capital to the European—in exchange for the right to hunt and trade on Manahatta. The Europeans deemed this exchange a purchase. A violent genocide and the forcible eviction of the Lenape ensued.

The roles are profoundly intricate, distancing the narrative from tropological depictions of indigenous-colonizer dynamics. Take Jane and her historical counterpart, Le-le-wa’-you, for example. Both are enterprising women. Both are caught amidst a horrific loss in translation between two ontologies existing on shared—then stolen—land. Similarly, Bobbie, who embodies childhood trauma at the hands of forced assimilation programs, is confronted with her whitewashed aversion to the Lenape language. Joe, Jane’s supervisor, takes a chance on Jane when he hires her, but soon realizes that providing her this opportunity is no moral license to make racist remarks. Meanwhile Debra, Jane’s sister, finds liberation through Christianity, bridging Lenape spirituality with Western religiosity, much like her ancestor Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i does in the historical plot.

Some might argue that the connections between the past and present narratives are somewhat contrived and convenient. Others would say that the play’s historical narrative is oversimplified. While these critiques are certainly valid (I believe them myself), the play successfully foregrounds otherwise abstract legacies of settler colonialism in America. Though reductive, it was apt, especially given the nature of the audience surrounding me. It is the first play by an indigenous person to be put up at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Punctuated by humor and rife with indigenous cultural motifs, Manahatta unearths the ugly foundation of contemporary America’s financial nexus. It connects a history of violence against indigenous people to its continued and often ignored institutionalization in the capitalist economy. An intricate, sobering, and fraught story of homecoming, the play turns the mirror on the audience, engaging us in a play performed on stolen indigenous land, and forcing us to question our own erasure of and complicity in cultural genocide and indigenous exploitation. It reminds us of America’s far-from-exceptional status, the progress that hasn’t been made, the illusion of democracy and justice. Had we watched the play before the Iowa caucuses and Trump’s dishonorable acquittal, I’m sure our upset and shock at the recent humbling of America’s “grand democracy” may have evoked nothing more than a sigh or shrug.

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