'Manahatta' review: Tracing the blood-soaked roots of American capitalism

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'Manahatta' review: Tracing the blood-soaked roots of American capitalism
Sheila Tousey, center, with ensemble members, in the play “Manahatta,” at the Public Theater in New York, on Nov. 15, 2023. Straddling the 17th and early 21st centuries, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play at the Public Theater examines the exploitation of the Lenape by Dutch settlers. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Naveen Kumar

NEW YORK, NY.- Acknowledgments that New York was once home to the Lenape people have become a familiar refrain at arts venues. In “Manahatta,” playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle undertakes a vital investigation of that willfully forgotten history so often rendered in shorthand. Now open at the Public Theater, just a few subway stops away from Wall Street, Nagle’s play traces the origins of American finance and the follies of its bottomless appetite for capital to the exploitation of the Lenape by the city’s Dutch settlers.

The Lenape people have been so forcefully expelled from their Northeastern homelands that the descendants Nagle depicts, beginning in 2002, live in what is now Oklahoma. Jane (Elizabeth Frances), an MIT and Stanford graduate, is interviewing for an entry-level Wall Street job when her father dies on an operating table. By the time she returns home, her sister Debra (Rainbow Dickerson) and their mother, Bobbie (a delightfully dry Sheila Tousey), are preparing for his funeral, and Bobbie is stuck with medical bills because the Indian Health Service, a government agency responsible for providing health services to Native peoples, has refused payment.

Intercut with this family drama are fablelike scenes set in 17th-century Manahatta, where West India Co. traders barter with the Lenape for furs coveted by the women they left behind in the Old World. The ensemble of seven actors appear in both timelines, including Enrico Nassi, who plays Luke, Jane’s childhood friend and would-be sweetheart; and Se-ket-tu-may-qua, an emissary who communicates with the Dutch and teaches Le-le-wa’-you, a Lenape woman also played by Frances, to speak their foreign tongue. Back in Manhattan, Jane is learning the sort of blustery talk necessary to chart her climb through the corporate ranks.

First developed at the Public in 2014, when Nagle was a member of its Emerging Writers Group, “Manahatta” premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2018. Its purview is promising and ambitious: In addition to the blood-soaked roots of American capitalism, Nagle addresses the erasure of Native languages through forced assimilation, and the irrevocable effects of Western violence, religion and consumer currency on Native culture.

But the concept of homeownership, in the modern sense of subprime mortgages and the more ancient one of who can lay claims to land, forms the strongest throughline: The Dutch dupe a Lenape elder, played by Tousey, into selling them Manahatta for a song, while Michael (David Kelly), who is both the local pastor and a banker, helps Bobbie take out a loan against her house. Jane, though not without her misgivings, is meanwhile helping to manufacture the 2008 financial crisis by selling mortgage-backed securities — it turns out she works for Lehman Brothers.

Directed by Laurie Woolery, the production shifts seamlessly between the alternating time periods and locales, on a wilderness-meets-boardroom set by Marcelo Martínez García, and with particular help from Lux Haac’s costumes, whose fusion of fabrics and styles (a pinstripe pilgrim silhouette, for example) accomplish an impressive narrative arc on their own.

The play draws direct, and at times reductive, parallels between the past and recent present. Jane’s bigwig bosses, played by Joe Tapper and Jeffrey King, are flat, greedy villains, figured as heirs to the deceptive, and ultimately murderous, founders of the market system (Tapper’s Dutch trader, at least, demonstrates some measure of humanity). But the white bad guys’ lack of complexity, though a missed opportunity, isn’t the most pressing problem.

The Native characters, too, are almost exclusively products of circumstance, reacting to the systems that oppress them rather than approaching life with innate motivations. That defensive posture is understandable in the colonial context, but when Jane is asked why she wants to work on Wall Street, her only answer is because she has overcome obstacles to get there. Jane’s professional trajectory is rather one piece of Nagle’s grand design, which feels undersynthesized throughout much of the show’s 105-minute running time until it reaches a too-obvious conclusion.

Even if this corrective account does not feel convincingly yoked to the drama onstage, an urgent significance to the facts is laid out in “Manahatta.” Nagle notes in the script that the play is a work of fiction, though it’s based on real events and was written in consultation with Lenape elders, whose ancestors are often evoked before curtains rise on New York stages. We would all do well to remember what they have lost.


Through Dec. 23 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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