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“Men on Boats”: Nice Job with a Difficult Play

My first impression of Hollins University Theatre’s current production of Jaclyn Backhaus’ “Men on Boats” last night was that Ernie Zulia’s name was nowhere to be found in the Playbill. Not a word. That gave me enough concern to ask about him. He’s on sabbatical, his first, I’m told, in his 11 years at Hollins.

Ernie is the guru of theater at not only Hollins, but also in the Roanoke Valley, raising the level of quality here immeasurably during the past decade-plus. So, how would his kids do with a complex, sophisticated and difficult-to-swallow work? The results were mixed.

“Men on Boats” takes on the topic of white men writing history (to boil it waaaay down) with an attempt at comedy by shaking up the historic formula and turning it on its head. All this is accomplished by recreating an 1869 western river expedition for “the government,” in what became part of the effort to claim land that didn’t belong to all these white men running said government.

The Hollins play casts women–white, black, brown–in all the parts, exaggerates the macho demeanor of these white men and makes them ridiculous, though not very funny (in my opinion as a white man of limited sophistication). I get the point, but I don’t think Backhaus’ play is anywhere subtle enough to be effective except to a narrow, specialized audience. The play, which was just published this past summer (Hollins had been working with it for some months by then), is apparently quite a success off Broadway.

There is good reason to see “Men on Boats,” mostly the co-direction of Hollins graduate Rachel Nelson (2007) and Hollins grad student Susanna Young (2009). Susanna serves as choreographer, this version of the play’s strongest statement. Both have considerably more experience than their short careers would suggest because Hollins–and Ernie–provide that. Hollins Theatre students get a workout.

The directors explained, in their playbill notes, that “Men on Boats” asks us “complicated questions: Who does history belong to? At what cost do we see our white ancestors as only adventurers and heroes, rather than allow them to be complex people who also participated in violent and systematic racism?” That pretty much indicts all white historians and I will take exception to it, having read a good bit of history (including the brand new “Code Girls,” which is written by a white woman and is extraordinary).

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? As I said, Susanna Young’s choreography was simply superb. I got the distinct feeling that this dance major (who directed me in an Overnight Sensations at Mill Mountain Theatre over the summer) has been on a whitewater raft at some point because the scenes depicting the boats roaring through difficult rapids–and especially those demonstrating capsizing–made my stomach churn. I’ve done a good bit of rafting, falling out regularly, often in hydraulics, and when these actors hit the deck squirming and fighting against the imagined current, I felt it.

Susanna’s and Ms. Nelson’s direction of the 10 actors assuming roles of tough guys with myriad personal problems was even, consistent and served the writer’s intent well. Although I didn’t especially like the play’s statement, I do appreciate tackling difficult issues (there is courage involved in that, something the men in the boats didn’t strongly demonstrate in this play).

Ernie would be proud of the women handling this play. They’ve done some good work. The play itself is not my favorite, however.

The play runs through this weekend and you can get $10 tickets by calling  (540) 362-6517. Plays at Hollins tend to sell out, so get your tickets ahead of time if possible.

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.

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