Loss and greed drive “Manahatta.” Mary Kathryn Nagle’s bifurcated, awkward drama having its East Coast premiere at Yale Rep. Taking place in two eras, the 17th and 21st centuries, the drama is also set in two places, New York and Oklahoma, as it connects the exploitation of Native Americans with that of the American economy.
Linking the two time periods is real estate, specifically the 1626 selling and buying of Manhattan Island from the Lenape people by Peter Minuit for a purported $24 in wampum. In 2008. financial shenanigans lead to the eventual downfall of such businesses as Lehman Brothers, due to the prime mortgage scandal and the collapse of the housing market.
The protagonist in the 21st century is Jane Snake who is also Le-le-wa’-
you in the 17th. Having graduated at the top of her class, this self-described math nerd gets a job at a Wall Street firm which she soon parlays into a ladder-climbing success. To tie the eras together, Jane is a Lenape, the group that sold Manahatta (“Island of Many Hills”) for a pittance. It’s not because the Natives are stupid; rather, owning land means nothing since they regard the world as their dwelling.
Jane’s mom, Bobbie, unable to pay the mortgage on her Oklahoma
house, is on the verge of being foreclosed, paralleling the financial market’s housing scandal. Jane to the rescue, an ironic turn, considering . Meanwhile, Jane’s sister, Debra, does her best to preserve the Lenape language and customs.
The connection between the tribe’s selling Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 and Jane’s role in the 2008 economic collapse is the play’s heart, raising unresolved questions. In a changing world, is the individual responsible for institutional troubles? Should past “sins” affect future happenings? Has building a wall on what is now Wall Street to keep out the “unwanted” an echo of the wall the president wants to build on the Mexican border, also to keep out “undesirables”? Does buying kale from Whole Foods equal the destruction of Native values?
We may never know the answers because the play is insubstantial and more thesis than drama. Director Laurie Woolery and movement director Ty Defoe inject the evening with activity, as actors clamber over rocks or jump on and off the chairs and table of scenic designer Marian Sanchez’s cramped set. All are adept at playing dual century characters. Credit Lily Gladstone, Danforth Cumins, Carla-Rae, Shyla Lefner, Steven Flores, T. Ryder Smith and Jeffrey King with skillfully distinguishing between the time periods.
Capitalism gets it in the neck in “Manahatta,” wherein commerce is valued over tradition, money over people. It’s an old battle, only tenuously explored by author Nagle (a Cherokee Nation citizen).