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'Manahatta' to Make Bay Area Premiere

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Shannon R. Davis. (Courtesy Shannon R. Davis)

It’s been 10 years since Mary Kathryn Nagle’s history-hopping, dual-timeline play Manahatta was first workshopped at the Public Theatre in NYC. Set in Manhattan in both 1626 and 2008, the play revisits the historic displacement of the Lenape peoples at the hands of the Dutch, and draws a direct throughline to the displacement and foreclosures caused by predatory lending practices during the Great Recession of 2007-2008.

Opening Feb. 9 at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, the play has undergone a journey almost as expansive as that of Nagle’s characters, from East Coast to West Coast and back again, undergoing several major rewrites and an evolving mission in a rapidly changing theatrical landscape. Manahatta exemplifies the deeply iterative work of playwriting and theatre-making; a state of constant renewal, responding to the world in real time in order to stay relevant and fresh.

Manahatta’s iterations are particularly familiar to director Shannon R. Davis, as she Assistant Directed its 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiere with Laurie Woolery (who also directed its recent Public Theatre production), working closely with the text and subtext and “mapping out the script on a daily basis.”

Director Shannon R. Davis discusses playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle in her presentation at Aurora Theatre’s first rehearsal of ‘Manahatta.’ (Alandra Hileman)

“I got to be in the room where we were changing scenes and switching things around, and really got to know the innards of this piece,” she describes. For the Berkeley production, they’re using a never-before staged revision from 2020 of which, Davis says, “felt best suited to what we’re working with.”

For this production, Davis is not only in the director’s chair — she’s the one who brought it to Aurora’s artistic director Josh Costello in the first place. The two had “wanted to work together for a long time,” and thematically, Costello saw the piece as fitting in with this current season. Davis concurs.

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“(There’s) capitalism. And Big Brother … the themes of 1984 … And there’s also historical — I’m thinking of Born with Teeth — illuminating certain periods of time to bring us back to the present. These mirrored issues, or these issues that we’ve been going through time and time again, and don’t seem to ever clear up. It’s a different version of the same old story.”

The first read-through at Aurora Thatre of ‘Manhatta’ with actors Linda Amayo-Hassan, Oogie Push, Ixtlán and Livia Gomes Dimarchi. (Alandra Hileman)

For Davis, who is of Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Sámi descent, working with a powerhouse majority-Native cast has been a joyful and generative process. It speaks to the relative rarity of Native work on Bay Area stages to note that several actors are making their Aurora Theatre debut with Manahatta, though many have worked on other projects together before.

“Indigenous and Native theatre is a pretty small community,” Davis points out. “We run in small circles. We get a lot of the same emails. We see each other around. But also, Aurora hired the Casting Collective … and I did have a chat with them upfront about cultural specificity and identity politics around Native casting. … With that in mind, I just called in everyone I knew of that I knew would be right in the Bay Area. And the Casting Collective (worked) with another colleague that I met up at OSF who identifies as Indigenous, so they already had a pretty robust list as well.”

One of these performers, Ixtlán (seen recently at Aurora Theatre in Cyrano), not only worked with Davis on the OSF production playing the same doubled role of Se-ket-tu-may-qua / Luke, but on many projects since — “My art partner,” as Davis fondly calls him. Originally born and raised in San Jose and Sutter County, Ixtlán auditioned for the 2018 OSF production after several years in New York, where, in addition to acting, they “got involved in the Native community” and an ongoing journey of self-discovery.

Actor Livia Gomes Demarchi at Aurora Theatre’s first rehearsal of ‘Manahatta.’ (Alandra Hileman)

Now in the Bay Area, Ixtlán works variously as an actor, movement artist, puppeteer and guest educator, collaborating often with Davis, whom he describes warmly as a “champion of the light.” Their creative symbiosis incorporates their cultural identities along with a multi-faceted exploration of artistic disciplines from Noh Theatre, film, modern dance, and even hip-hop (co-creating a stirring pandemic-era video with Bay Area Cypher titled “Indigenous Excellence”).

“There has been a mutual discovering who we are,” Ixtlán reflects of this artistic relationship. “In this way of claiming your history, and who you are, and realizing that the world we live in doesn’t support certain groups of people as much as other groups of people. And when you kind of awaken out of that, and realize ‘Oh, I’ve been a part of the machine which I’m raging against, but now what can I do differently to create a new community?’”

One potential project that Davis had put forward while a member of CalShakes’ inaugural “Artist Circle” was an entire season of Native programming, although today she says the likelihood of that taking place at CalShakes is slim, given their financial and operational struggles. Still, she contends, a smaller week-long festival of Native performance would be eminently achievable.

“I would love to build some sort of a week-long program, like if we started off with Jackie’s (Keliiaa) night of comedy, then the next night … it could be a powwow ground, and then the next day we have a new play reading by Native Writers Theater up in Marin … and then the next night it’s an elder drum circle … Just a week-long explosion of Native stuff in the Summer time. That would be exciting.”

Oakland Shakespeare Festival’s Native affinity group. (L–R) Top: Rainbow Dickerson, Shannon R. Davis, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Tanis Parenteau, Sheila Tousey, Shyla Lefner, Christopher Salazar. Front: Ixtlán. (Courtesy Shannon R. Davis)

It’s taken 10 years for Nagle’s script to premiere in the Bay Area, and perhaps an entire 400 years for the Bay Area to begin grappling with its specific tale of the Lenape people’s displacement and its modern-day repercussions. But despite the heavy subject matter, Aurora Theatre’s production is helping to activate and center a community of local Native theatre artists and allies in a generative process that Davis happily describes as “fun.”

“This cast is amazing,” she shares. “They are just having a blast in the room, so my number one mission was accomplished.”

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‘Manahatta’ previews begin Friday, Feb. 9, at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Details and tickets here.

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