For Native American Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, the Past Is Present | Playbill

Special Features For Native American Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, the Past Is Present

Her Off-Broadway play Manahatta looks at how the Lenape people lost their land and how that connects to the housing crisis of 2008.

Mary Kathryn Nagle

Wall Street is more than just a crosstown street at the southern tip of Manhattan. The term itself has become synonymous with the entire American financial market. But its origins go back to the northern border wall of 17th century New Amsterdam. Built by enslaved people, the wall was meant to keep the English from invading the Dutch colony. But it also kept out the land’s first people, the Lenapehoking.

Of course, to the colonizers, the land was theirs, purchased from the tribe in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company. The land was traded for (in today’s exchange) about $1,000 worth of goods, including tools, guns, cloths, and wampum, the shell beads used as currency in fur trading between Native Americans and early settlers. Peter Minuit brokered the deal.

In Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play Manahatta, now running at The Public Theater through December 23, the playwright draws a direct line from that first trade of land ownership on Wall Street to the housing market collapse in 2008. Nagle deftly weaves past and present to tell the story of the 17th-century Lenape-Dutch trade and a modern Lenape family in Oklahoma, whose home is under threat of bank repossession. It’s also a tale of two siblings: of one sister who stayed in Oklahoma and works to keep the Lenape language alive and the other sister who left to work for a financial firm on Wall Street.

Rainbow Dickerson, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly, and Joe Tapper in Manahatta Joan Marcus

Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and originally from Oklahoma (where most tribes were forcibly relocated during the Indian Removals). She now makes her home in Washington, D.C. and, like many playwrights, Nagle has a day job. She’s a lawyer, specializing in federal Indian law and tribal sovereignty. Many of her plays concern the relationship of Native American citizens and federal U.S. law. Sliver of a Full Moon is about the Native survivors of domestic abuse and the fight to make sure the Violence Against Women Act includes protections for them. Sovereignty is about a Cherokee lawyer’s battle to reinstate tribal jurisdiction.

For Manahatta, Nagle turned to the financial crisis, which she litigated as a young attorney in New York. “I saw upfront how residential mortgage-backed securities led to the 2008 crisis, and really got an understanding of what they are and what their fallacy was—and how everyone knew that and just turned a blind eye because it was making them so much money,” says Nagle.

In the play, Bobbie (played by Sheila Tousey), the family matriarch, mortgages her home to pay her late husband’s medical bills. But when the monthly payments go up (due to an adjustable-rate mortgage), she can’t make them and is in danger of defaulting on the loan and losing the home.

“It’s easy to sit here in 2023 and think, ‘Why would Bobbie do this?’ But that’s what everyone was doing at the time,” says Nagle. “Everyone said it was safe.” And there was a great amount of trust because the loans were coming from local banks and community members. “And they were making money because every time they made a loan, they would sell it to another company that would then go and take them to these securities. There are so many levels…. It just got way out of hand.”

While Bobbie is in Oklahoma, her daughter Jane (played by Elizabeth Frances) is working her way up the Lehman Brothers ladder, not an easy task for an Indigenous woman in world mostly ruled by white men. But she’s a math whiz and good talker and before long, she is a top trader herself. Because Manahatta is set in both 1626 and 2008, we also see Jane as the young Lenape woman Le-le-wa’-you; she learns English and begins trading furs with the Dutch, normally done by the men of the tribe. She is present when the “purchase” of the island takes place.

Jeffrey King, Elizabeth Frances, and Joe Tapper in Manahatta Joan Marcus

It is believed by historians that the Lenape did not intend to cede ownership of Manhattan to the Dutch—that they had a different interpretation of what it meant to own land. They use the land and are its stewards. The trade to them likely meant that the Dutch could also use the land. Not own it and force the Lenape from it.

With the 2008 financial crisis, Nagle saw history repeating itself. And she believes it's gaps in historical knowledge that lead to these recurrences. “I have had people tell me in the American theatre, ‘We're interested in doing contemporary stories, not stories that only have relevance in the past.’ And I'm always taken aback by that. Because I see the direct connection all the time,” she says. “What may have been a wrong perpetrated against a historically marginalized group in this country, like Native people, is now—because we haven't addressed it or processed it or even identified it—happening to everyone. It wasn't just Native people who lost their homes in 2008. It was all kinds of Americans who weren't in the top in income bracket. My hope is that people will start to see those connections.”

Manahatta was originally written in 2013 when Nagle was in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. Under the direction of the Public’s Laurie Woolery, it was produced in 2018 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and in 2020 at Yale Rep. And now it has returned home to the theatre where it began, on the Lenape homeland. Nagle has worked closely with the Lenape Center on historical and language accuracies, and the center’s director Joe Baker serves as the production’s cultural consultant. It feels very important to point out that the Lenape Center has been working on acquiring a physical space in Manhattan. The original caretakers of the island of Manhattan do not currently have the resources to even maintain an office space.

Elizabeth Frances in Manahatta Joan Marcus

In a time when teaching history accurately is a controversial subject in this country, looking keenly to the past and how it converges on the present is even more urgent. “Critical race theory” has become a rallying cry for the political right to pass laws restricting what K-12 teachers can discuss in their classrooms. “Several states have made it illegal to talk about the reality of slavery because it makes white people feel bad,” says the lawyer. “They just want teachers to live in fear that if they talk about the reality of the past, they'll be arrested.”

It’s also insidious considering there are few lessons taught at all about the colonization of America and what happened to its Indigenous peoples. Nagle believes that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution—which granted citizenship and equal protection of the law to all people, including those formerly enslaved—contributes to this erasure of history. The amendment has given white Americans a sort of “get out of jail free” card in regards to their horrific past—a wrong had been righted; history had been dealt with, so it no longer needs to be spoken about.

But there is still no reckoning for Native American tribes, says Nagle. “I think the equivalent of the 14th amendment for us would be an amendment to the Constitution restoring tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty emphatically, with no question. And I think that's something that scares a lot of non-Native Americans, because they don't understand it.”

Because that sounds a lot like, “Will I lose my right to be here? Will I lose my land? Will I lose my home?” See the irony?

In the play, Jane returns to Oklahoma and learns of her mother’s pending eviction. She sees the wreckage of the market crash she had a hand in. And there is guilt. For not knowing. For not being there. For having left home.

While Manahatta is about houses and land, the heart of it is about home. “Yes, I’m writing about what it means to lose your home, but also what it means to carry your home with you,” Nagle says. “Because that's what we've had to do as Native people. Our homes have been taken from us. And how do you keep going? It’s like what Bobbie says, ‘You carry it with you. And you survive.’”


Photos: Manahatta At The Public Theater

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