Illuminating “Manahatta”: Motion, Place, and Time

A scene from Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Manahatta (2018): Sheila Tousey, Rainbow Dickerson, Tanis Parenteau, Jeff King. Photo by Jenny Graham.

This month, OSF is excited to share an archival video stream of one of our most popular and compelling productions from the last few years: Manahatta, by playwright, activist, and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle. Past and present collide and overlap in this story about legacy, history, and home, centering on Jane Snake, a present-day Lenape woman, and her ancestors living on the island of Manahatta (now known as Manhattan) in the 17th century.

Whether you were first able to experience Manahatta in Ashland in 2018, or you are witnessing it for the first time through this archival streaming video, here are some selections from OSF’s Illuminations magazine to help give additional context for this powerful, expansive story.

In this excerpt, Sarah dAngelo explores how Nagle’s play makes meaning through Indigenous aesthetics of motion, place, and time, paying close attention to the importance of the physical settings of the story.

Collapsing the boundaries of form

A scene from Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Manahatta (2018): Steven Flores and Tanis Parenteau. Photo by Jenny Graham.

While Manahatta centers on the Lenape people who celebrate their own cultural practices, beliefs, and language apart from other Native nations, the play reveals characteristics and topics that are intertribal in nature and meaningful across the nations. The canon of contemporary Native American plays offers a range of theatrical creative expression and a multiplicity of voices. Yet similar themes and structures often emerge. The themes found in Manahatta examine identity, tribal history, the complexities found in traditional and contemporary lifestyles, the tensions between Christianity and traditional practices, intergenerational households, the passing on of traditional knowledge, and the presence of Native languages.

The interwoven nature of these topics is revealed through the Native understandings of motion, place, and time. When enacted within the context of the Native theatre aesthetic, these elements collapse the boundaries of the forms found in traditional Western theatre. A dynamic style of performance occurs that is both theatrical and representative of the way Native epistemology emerges in the aesthetic of all expressive arts. In Manahatta, we see the action of the play move episodically through temporal/platial realms similar to the style of the oral tradition and Native storytelling, which mirrors the experience of human memory. The overlap and simultaneous occurrence of time and place express exchange with a multiplicity of realms and realities. The interplay between realities and the co-occurrences of temporal and platial realms is understood and accepted as a natural part of the human experience in Native epistemology.

The rootedness of place

In the staging notes of the play, Nagle states, “Manahatta takes place in two time periods, simultaneously. One half of the play takes place in Manahatta, in both the 17th and 21st centuries. The other half of the play takes place in modern-day Anadarko. It is important that the two worlds begin separately but immediately commence on a course that ultimately results in a collision.”

As [Jane Snake’s] ancestral knowledge deepens over the course of the play, her literal and metaphoric belonging in the world deepens.

The places of Manahatta and Oklahoma are integral to the story and structure of the play. Both places figure so prominently in the story that one could say they function as actively as the characters themselves. The dynamics of place relates to the Native understanding of the knowledge, experience, and meanings held within the very landscape. As Jane navigates the modern-day business world in Manahatta at a non-Native investment bank, cultural challenges emerge. She encounters rhetorical aggressions from her non-Native superiors and colleagues who assume knowledge about her identity and experience growing up Native in Oklahoma. By returning to her ancestral homeland, the power of place drives Jane to navigate and reconcile her Lenape identity. As her ancestral knowledge deepens over the course of the play, her literal and metaphoric belonging in the world deepens.

For Debra and Bobbie, Oklahoma informs their identities shaped by lineage, language, spirituality, history, and home. Debra works to build a language preservation program for the Lenape people in the community and does not share Jane’s career pursuits beyond Anadarko. Bobbie lives in the home built by her grandparents on the family land, passed through the generations from the allotment days. The homestead is a site of connection, linking Bobbie to her relatives who were relocated to Oklahoma from the Brazos Reserve in Texas in the mid-19th century. Although Bobbie has never physically been to Manahatta, she understands the experience one has of ancestral presence in the land. She speaks to Jane about Manahatta in the Lenape language and passes on ancestral knowledge about the significant Lenape sites hidden in the present-day Manahatta landscape.

If you found this post helpful, consider sharing on social media using hashtag #ManahattaOSF to help spread the word. And check back soon for more content about Manahatta and other shows streaming at OSF soon!