TR Robertson — Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre just wrapped up a 10 woman play that must have left the women in the play absolutely exhausted after each performance. “Men on Boats”, by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed, is a theatrical production of the Captain John Wesley Powell 3 month, 930 mile, 1869 expedition to map and survey the Green and Colorado River through a fairly unknown series of canyons, which we know today as the Grand Canyon and all of the associated canyons and formations. Powell was serving as the 2nd Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and had been given this assignment by the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
Jaclyn Backhaus play was a New York Theatre Pick and depicts the three month arduous journey and all of the turmoil and adventure these men must have gone through, only the 10 man group is played by 10 women. The movable set, rotated when needed to become either the canyon walls or life on the river. Sounds of rushing water and waterfalls filled the theatre along with blue flowing lights giving everyone the feeling of the rapids of the Colorado. The play brought back lots of memories for my wife and I, as we spent 7 incredible days on the Colorado River in a float trip some 40 years ago. It was actually my wife’s second time down the Colorado River. The beauty of the canyon is unsurpassed and the excitement of being on the river and the rapids are as advertised and they
are indeed a huge adrenaline rush.
This physically demanding play began with the women divided into groups on the 4 boats Powell used for the expedition. Three of the boats were each 21 feet long and were named the Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde’s Sister and No Name. Powell’s boat was specially designed for him, a 16 foot boat with a chair strapped toward the back for Powell to sit in through the rapids. He named his boat the Emma Dean, after his wife. Powell had lost his right arm during the Civil War, but this never deterred him from taking part in this or other expeditions. Powell’s name would remembered to this day in the American Southwest with Lake Powell, Powell Peak, Powell Plateau, a mineral called Powellite and several schools in the southwest all bearing his name.
The playwright, and director, had each of the women performing the part of the oarsmen for the rowboats. This required at times strenuously performing rowing actions as if they were maneuvering through rapids complete with back and forth body movements as instructions were shouted out so they would avoid the canyon walls and boulders. At other times the group quietly floated down the Colorado as we heard the conversations between the boats. Even minus real water and real boats the group’s actions painted a perfect picture of what the original group must have gone through.
Backhaus must have read the journal Powell kept about his experience on the expedition as many of the actual occurrences appeared in the play. These included the naming of many of the geological areas in the canyon, the loss of the row boat No Name, the abandonment of the expedition by the Englishman Goodman who was out for a good adventure before giving up, several over board experiences, nearly running out of food (which is amazing as when they began they had enough food for a 10 month expedition), the abandonment of the expedition by two brothers and one of the hunter/trappers (these three were never heard from again) and the completion of the expedition by Powel and the remaining 5 crewmen. These men were paid $25 per month and the cook was paid $1.50 per day.The cast – L-R – standing – Briana Dodson, Milena Phillips, Kristianne Kurner, Melba Novoa, Tiffany Tang; Seated – Nancy Ross, Joy Yvonne Jones, Paloma Dominguez, Samantha Ginn, Tamara McMillian.
Whether or not this play was presented by women or men, this version was beautifully acted and the tension, frustration and excitement the original group must have gone through is felt throughout the performance. Playing the ever positive John Wesley Powell was NVA’s Executive Artistic Director, hunter/trapper William Dunn (one of the men lost on the expedition) was played by Nancy Ross, Playing the Howland brothers, Oramel (OG) and Seneca, (also lost on the expedition) were Melba Novoa and Tamara McMillian, playing Powell’s brother Walter Powell was Milema (Sellers) Phillips (a Craig Noel Award Nominee). Englishman Frank Goodman (who quit after one month on the trip) was played by Tiffany Tang. Playing the over-zealous cook, W.R. (Billy) Hawkins, was Samantha Ginn. The expedition chronicler George Bradley was played by Brianna Dodson, Joy Yvonne Jones played Andrew Hall and Paloma Dominguez played hunter/trapper Jack Sumner.
This experienced cast presented this very demanding play in a way the audience could feel the bravery, fear, enthusiasm and accomplishment the actual Powell expedition must have felt as they fought the elements and completed what is called “the last great land exploration in the United States”. Director Melissa Coleman-Reed returned to NVA after making her directorial debut last year with the Craig Noel Award nominated “Having Our Say: The Delany sisters’ First 100 Years”. Her interpretation brought to this play reflects her bios description of being passionate about plays with movement and shape and plays which are reflective of the real world.
Next up for New Village Arts is the Tony Award winning musical, “Avenue Q”, by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez from a book by Jeff Whitty. The musical opens May 26th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 760-433-3245 or go to www.newvillagearts.org.