‘Manahatta,’ Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Play About the Lenape, Comes Home

Mary Kathryn Nagle moved to Manhattan in 2010. Back then, she would often run to work along a path that skirted the East River, absorbing the city and its history from the shoreline.

“I was interested in learning more about whose lands I was on,” she said.

Nagle, a lawyer and a playwright, grew up in Oklahoma, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She had not known much about the Lenape, Manhattan’s original residents, though Lenape tribes (some of whom refer to themselves as Delaware Indians) lived in Anadarko and Bartlesville, not far from her hometown. That year, through contacts at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, she discovered more, including details of the purchase of Manhattan, which was then part of the Lenape’s homeland, Lenapehoking, by Dutch colonists.

This was not long after the 2008 financial crisis. Nagle’s firm, Quinn Emanuel, was engaged in litigation, suing banks implicated in that crisis. The ceding of Manhattan and the subprime mortgage catastrophe began to mingle in her mind, especially once she discovered that Wall Street, a fulcrum of the subprime collapse, was named for the wall built by the Dutch to keep the Lenape out.

These dueling histories, recent and long ago, inspired Nagle’s play “Manahatta.” Now in previews at the Public Theater, it will run through Dec. 23. Named for the Lenape word for Manhattan, which translates to “island of many hills,” the drama volleys between the 17th century and the early 21st, and between Manahatta and Manhattan and Anadarko. The seven actors in the cast each play a character in each period. This is the play’s third production, but the first on the island on which it is largely set.

“It got really real when we all descended upon Manhattan,” said Rainbow Dickerson, an actress who has been with the play since 2018. “We feel it. We feel it every day.”

I met with Nagle, who was nine months pregnant, earlier this month on a warmish Saturday evening just after rehearsal. She had agreed to walk around Lower Manhattan, along streets that pertain to the play. We began on Pearl Street, named, Nagle said, for the mounds of oyster shells the Lenape had left there.

Then she moved past Beaver Street, named to reflect the fur trade, and onto Wall Street, where no trace of a wall remained, and then to Broadway, which runs at an oblique angle, reflecting a Lenape trading route. “It is not a street created by the colonizers,” she said.

It was dark by then. And any vestiges of the Lenape were long paved over. “At the end of the day, even when you do see grass in Manhattan, it was probably concrete and then changed back to grass,” she said. But she could still feel some remnant, she said, particularly at the island’s tip.

“They had ceremony, they had prayer at the water’s edge,” she said. “So even though we have changed the outline of the island in terms of where it meets the water, that shoreline is still here.” So is the sun, she continued. And the moon. “We’ve imposed so much on top of this island,” she added. “But in a way nature is still here.”

Nagle, 40, has the focused, no-nonsense demeanor one might expect of a lawyer specializing in federal Indian law and appellate litigation, and the occasional flights of lyricism fitting for a playwright. She wrote the first draft of “Manahatta” in 2013, as part of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. She moved back to Oklahoma in 2015, but the play stayed with her. “Manahatta” had its world premiere in 2018 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was produced in 2020 by Yale Repertory Theater.

“Nagle,” one reviewer of the Oregon production wrote, “weaves the stories together skillfully, one mirroring the other, often using the same language, to drive home the point that the American story has always been one of putting commerce above people, especially when those people aren’t white. It’s devastating.”

As “Manahatta” evolved, it came to center on Jane Snake, a Lenape econometrics whiz hired by a Manhattan investment bank. (The same actress also plays Le-le-wa’-you, a 17th-century Lenape woman.) Through Jane’s conflicting ambitions, desires and loyalties, Nagle explores questions of ownership and allegiance. Jane reminds her in some ways of herself, a young woman who believed she had to leave Oklahoma to make her way in the world. The character’s choices are not always ones that Nagle, who has since relocated to Washington, D.C., might have made, but it was important to her that Jane felt real and active, not merely the victim of a wider, non-Indigenous world.

“Probably every play of mine is critiquing a white system of power that has been forced on us,” she said. “But also, it’s 2023, we’re all living in it now. So how are we responsible? How are we involved?”

The director Laurie Woolery has been with the play since its premiere in Oregon. She was initially attracted to the challenge of the play and how it demanded that the actors move back and forth in time without any major change of scene.

“I’m really drawn to work that feels impossible to stage,” she said during a recent interview at the Public Theater.

But traveling between two eras was only one difficulty. Avoiding stereotypes was just as important. “There’s so many different ways in which we have been depicted in American culture not based on fact, reality or truth,” Nagle said. “If you want to present the truth, you’re doing that in a space where your representation has been not authentic. So you’ve got to deconstruct that before you can fully introduce the authentic, and that’s a challenge.”

While there is no Lenape performer among the cast (casting directors would not have asked about particular tribal enrollment during auditions), the production has hired Joe Baker, a co-founder and the executive director of the Lenape Center in New York, as a cultural consultant.

Baker has advised the production on matters of costume, props, language and Lenape aesthetics. “We’ve had many conversations about different traditions, different characters,” he said in a phone interview. Asked if Nagle’s play felt truthful to the Lenape experience, he said that it did.

“There is clarity there,” he said. “She totally understands the protocol, the practice.”

Lenape artists have also contributed some of the show’s props and design elements, including a wampum necklace, which Woolery shared as she led a recent technical rehearsal. “It’s a gift for us,” she said, holding out the three-strand necklace, “to keep us rooted.”

Avoiding stereotypes is perhaps slightly easier now than it was a decade ago, when Nagle began her playwriting career. (Her other plays include “Sliver of a Full Moon,” Sovereignty” and “Crossing Mnisose.”) Recent years have brought many more depictions of Native Americans onscreen, often in projects created by or with Native writers and directors. And Native playwrights are experiencing more prominence, too. Nagle mentioned peers like DeLanna Studi (“Flight”), Madeline Sayet (“Where We Belong”) and, particularly, Larissa FastHorse, whose “Thanksgiving Play” had its Broadway debut last season.

“The whole landscape has changed,” Nagle said. “It’s not enough. It’s definitely not enough. But we had our first Native woman on Broadway, which is a big deal.”

What would be enough?

“When we’re as much in the American theater canon as any other group,” she said.

Nagle’s ambitions have always been as political as they are literary. If she has a need to tell stories, she also has the canny understanding that stories can be more persuasive than any number of appellate briefs.

“In playwriting you can make an argument and force people to listen to it and hear it, in a way that they will never listen to it or hear it in a legal argument,” she said.

The arguments here have to do with how history repeats itself and the dangers of making homes into tradable commodities. And as the play began preview performances just before Thanksgiving — the rare holiday that involves Indigenous history, however mythologized — and opens just after, it is also intended as a corrective to previous forms of representation.

“My hope with ‘Manahatta’ is that we can provide non-Native Americans with a genuine narrative about Native people that just might supplant one or more of the false narratives American society has ingrained in them,” Nagle said.

The significance of telling this particular story only a mile or two from where it happened has not been lost on any of the “Manahatta” cast or crew. “How do we recognize that we are standing on the ground of Lenapehoking and the genocide and forced removal of that tribe?” Woolery asked just before a rehearsal. “That’s a lot to hold.”

Baker, the Lenape cultural consultant, was glad to see the play come home. He sees traces of the Lenape everywhere in Manhattan. “Everything you see is Lenape,” he said. “The breath and vitality of this place continues.” He hopes that audiences will learn something of the place’s history and its Indigenous people.

“It’s a significant, significant moment,” he said. “And it’s exciting to share this moment.”

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