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Like in history, like in storytelling, like in conversation, the line between fact and feeling is blurred during a rehearsal for SpeakEasy Stage Company's "Men On Boats." Director Dawn M. Simmons stands barefoot before her ensemble, which sits in a loose semicircle on the floor, discussing one of the penultimate scenes of the play.
“When I got [the script], I had no idea it was the new hotness,” Simmons says, grinning. “Then I read it, and I couldn’t stop laughing. It was just hysterical, and clean, and it left a lot to the imagination, which I think is where I excel.”
What Simmons is doing could be described as directing, but the energy in the room is more push-and-pull. The cast is composed entirely of female, transgender and gender-noncomforming actors — a first for SpeakEasy and required by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus' script notes. Actors and director are in constant conversation, trying to delve deeper into the headspaces of the cisgender white men that they’ve been tasked with representing onstage: specifically, the Powell Expedition of 1869. The trip resulted in the first American cartographic exploration of the Colorado River and the first recorded instance of white men traversing the Grand Canyon.
“It raises questions like, ‘How is history told?’ The folks with power are the ones who shape the stories we tell, shape whose experiences are valued and whose are pushed to the side,” says actor Cody Sloan, who portrays two characters: explorer Frank Goodman and a “desert settler” called Mr. Asa. “[We] are folks who would not have been uplifted in this history, and who have not been uplifted in history in a lot of ways. So to have us be the folks that are telling this story is really wonderful thing.”
“Men On Boats” marks the SpeakEasy debut for Simmons, as well as Sloan and eight others in the 10-person cast.
“The author took ownership of the story, and inserted a mandate for the types of people she would like to see in [it],” Simmons explains. “I think part of the playwright’s mandate is to open a door, and to cultivate taste so that people are interested in hearing the stories of others.”
Several members of the cast found that Backhaus' demand for inclusive, non-cis male casting offered a rare opportunity to rewrite history.
“Before this cast, I don't think I’ve ever been in such a diverse room,” says Alice Kabia, who plays mapmaker Andrew Hall.
For Kabia, who identifies as genderqueer and transmasculine, becoming a part of this cast offered a rare chance to be their authentic self professionally, and see that reflected in their cast mates.
“When you’re in a room with people who don’t identify as queer or gender-nonconforming, they can only guess as to what your experience is, and they don’t just let you live in it. You kind of have to explain it in a certain way,” Kabia shares. “But now that you're in a room where it just goes unexplained, you can just come in as you are — and just exist like that.”
Sloan, who is transgender, echoes that sentiment. He shares that because of the environment “Men On Boats” has created — from the auditions to the rehearsal room — he feels more empowered to make the “vulnerable decision” to be visibly out as a trans actor.
“It is so important that people know," he says. "For people to know that trans actors exist, and we’re good at our work, and our experiences are important and our voices are important."
For other members of the cast, the subversion of the typical white male, Manifest Destiny-fulfilling narrative of history offers an opportunity to reflect on the power and privilege of American storytelling.
“It tells me, and hopefully the audience, that there are so many narratives out there that people don’t know and that need to be told,” says Mal Malme, who plays a seasoned explorer and Civil War veteran called Old Shady. “And so I need to do my homework and find out those narratives that I didn't get to read when I was a kid.”
Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, the cast members find that they have much to relate to and identify with as they explore the lives of the long-dead men they portray. For Malme, a cancer survivor who identifies as nonbinary, there are threads of connection to be found in the grizzled veteran Old Shady.
“I connect with him as somebody who is in a world that's not fit for my kind of gender identity,” Malme shares. “I have to find my own road to follow, and I have to find my own comfort, my own self-care, my own self-love, in this world.”
“I identify with Goodman in some ways,” Sloan says of his character, who he describes as somewhat of an outsider. Late in the show, Goodman makes the difficult decision to leave the expedition. “I think he wants to be part of the group very badly, and can’t really make that happen for himself. And I understand that feeling. It doesn't feel like that so much anymore, but I understand that feeling. Making a really big decision that also changes his life — I very much understand that.”
Back in the rehearsal room, the cast and director have moved to choreography practice. Despite what its name may suggest, “Men On Boats” is a highly physical work. In unison, the cast mimics casting off from shore, rowing in time and barking out commands to each other, their eyes on Simmons as she works out interpretive movements that will translate the traversal of canyon rapids to the stage. For Simmons, this adventure is just as much about fun as it is about the message.
“I want people to come out of this play [saying], ‘Holy cow, these people made me feel this thing that I feel for every other adventure story I have ever seen,’ ” she says. “Then right through that grows this sort of appreciation — we don't have to limit our storytelling. We don't have to limit the way we think about our storytelling, or who can be in whose stories.”
Simmons and Malme note that for Boston area community and fringe theaters, a gender-nonconforming cast is nothing new. Last year, Company One's "The T Party" explored a kaleidoscope of queer and transgender experiences, and Malme's own company, Queer Soup Theater, produces a show called "The Pineapple Project" that explores gender with kids ages 3 to 8. But they’re excited for larger, more mainstream theater companies to continue telling stories that resonate with the intersectional communities they serve.
“You can't walk down the street anymore and not come up against what is unknown to you, or what is different to you. And instead of making fun of it, decrying it, fearing it, we have to start seeing our similarities and our shared humanity,” Simmons states.
But perhaps it’s Kabia who puts it best.
“A lot of people say that theater holds a mirror to life, and if life is not accurately represented onstage, then I kind of feel like, what's the point?” Kabia says, laughing. “Why am I going to see these people that I can never see myself as? That's just boring to me.”
"Men On Boats" runs from Sept. 8 through Oct. 7 at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston Center for the Arts.
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