Sydney Kate Watson, asst. arts & living editor
Berry College Theatre Company (BCTC) presented “Men on Boats” written by Jaclyn Backhaus this past week from Sept. 29 through Oct. 3 on an outdoor set by the BOLD courses. The production kicked off BCTC’s first in-person show since the COVID-19 virus by asking audiences to look a little closer at America’s past through satire and comedy.
“Men on Boats” is set in 1869 and follows 10 men as they are led down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by their leader John Wesley Powell. These men experience one challenge after the next, as they map their way through the landscape with the power of the United States government sanctioning them forward. However, the integral message of the play is delivered through the playwright’s direction for casting. Backhaus noted that the cast should be all women, and women of color whenever possible.
Powell, and his original company of men, were all historically white, and the casting of women, particularly African American women, creates a stark contrast that enables the audience to understand the play’s underlying theme: American’s appropriation of indigenous lands. Senior actress and technician Leah Toussaint said that “Men on Boats” showcases the overtaking of lands more than the traditional westward expansion story that is typically repeated in history classes: Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is a nineteenth century belief that white Americans were ordained by God to expand their control westward, according to Khan Academy.
According to Associate Professor and Director of Theater Peter Friedrich, the play was a crowd pleaser as well as a crowd challenger. He acknowledged that American history has been whitewashed as well as male washed. “Men on Boats” makes a statement that women and people of color were just as influential in that time period.
“There are so many parts of history right now that are more ‘his’ story than what factually happened,” Friedrich said.
Toussaint also said that history is often told by those who win, and even though it is presented as a one-sided issue, that is not always the case.
“Through this play, we kind of show that people in history can be anyone,” Toussaint said.
From cooking snakes for dinner to singing while fishing, “Men on Boats” offers a comedic approach to serious topics such as race, marginalization and appropriation. Friedrich plainly stated that one does not have to be a history fanatic to understand that the play satirically takes a shot at toxic masculinity. However, Friedrich said that if the play was serious the entire time, the audience would not pay as much attention.
“We are not trying to make a symposium on the serious issues of the day, we are trying to make theater,” Friedrich said.
Toussaint described the comedic aspects of the play as giving audience members a deep breath. After this breath, she said the audience members could then dig deeper into the topic being discussed.
Occasionally, the play stops on a dime to reflect and dig into a particular scene, such as when Powell and William Dunn are naming a cliff. Powell notes to Dunn that even though this cliff naming may be special to him, it has been named by indigenous people before, and there will be people who name it again after they are long gone. To get at the heart of an issue like appropriation, theater starts the serious conversation in a lighthearted way, according to Friedrich.
“It’s a way that makes you think about something without someone wagging their finger at you and saying you should think about this,” Friedrich said.
Even though the play touched on heavy topics and at times had some crass language, Friedrich believes that “Men on Boats” allowed BCTC to celebrates Berry’s current endeavors of cultural belonging. A real priority for BCTC, Friedrich said, is to build a culture of openness, and the way to achieve that is through leading as strongly as possible with the priority of diversity.
“What it really means is looking for opportunities to make art that celebrates that [the culture of diversity],” Friedrich said.
The cast included four first-year students and others without an excessive background in theater. Most notably, first-year Nadia Kassim takes the lead of the play, and expedition as Powell. Friedrich and Toussaint both said that these newcomers had great performances. Toussaint mentioned that even under the difficulty and stress of playing someone else, outside in five layers of clothes, the cast took direction very well.
“They worked very hard, they are all very talented and very dedicated to what they’ve done,” Toussaint said.
Friedrich noted that BCTC is looking to cast people who may have never had any theater experience. Having a cast with varied experience levels offers great opportunities for development.
“We don’t just want people who have done a million plays before; theater should also be for people doing their very first play,” Friedrich said.
The performance was entirely outdoors, on a set that was designed by Technical Director Logan Reagan. According to junior Stage Manager Crystal Vassor, the cast did all of their blocking inside the theater, so going outside was a big transition. Toussaint said that due to the rain, the cast was not able to rehearse outside until a week and a half before production. To adapt from the flat surface of the theater to jumping on and off the outdoor set was interesting, Toussaint said.
“It was the weirdest thing to adapt to, going outside with suede jackets on, and boats, and three more shirts and microphones,” Toussaint said.
According to Friedrich, the outdoor setting gave audience members who might not have otherwise attended the performance the opportunity to attend in a safe atmosphere. Friedrich said that at times it could have been more ideal, but Northwest Georgia is still in a health emergency. Even so, the performance on a well-designed set, with the last light of golden hour and then the stage lights, was a magnificent sight, according to Friedrich.
“I’ve never seen a show like that before, I just thought it was just an incredible opportunity,” Friedrich said.
Vassor hoped that audiences enjoyed BCTC’s wonderful actors and live outdoor theater. Toussaint wanted audience members to understand that just because someone says something, or it is written down, does not make that thing true. She hoped her audience would take their curiosity for truth and research to fill in the gaps of their understanding. Even though it may not be comfortable the entire time, Toussaint urged that those moments of understanding bring people together.