Northwest history hits the stage in “Astoria” and “db”

CoHo's "db" experimented wildly with DB Cooper's tale, while Portland Center Stage's "Astoria: Part One" took a traditional trail


While dramas about American history never went away, I believe that we are now in the midst of a kind of history play renaissance. In the ten years since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its intention to commission a cycle of 37 plays about American history, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History was created (and named the OSF-commissioned All The Way one of its first winners), Arena Stage in Washington, DC, has launched a project to create a 25-play American history cycle, and of course, Hamilton happened.

Given the events of the past ten years—not to mention the recent election cycle—it is not entirely surprising that we find ourselves in a moment of reflection about our past and how it has shaped our identity as a country. While Obama’s presidency did not in fact usher in the glorious vision of a post-race America, it does seem to have mainstreamed a conversation about how the picture of our past can be expanded. The current wave of history plays are not only traditional political tragedies about important white men—though those are there, too—but many are also investigations into how our understanding and narration of America’s history can be radically reshaped by previously silenced voices.

For example, the five finalists for the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize are Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the 26-year-old lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, and the young lesbian she represented, who became known to history as “Jane Roe” (an OSF commission); 24 Hour History of Popular Music, a marathon musical spectacle by prominent queer artist Taylor Mac; Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, focusing on the racial tensions in a factory town in the mid-2000s (OSF commission); Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen, a comedy about how his parents met as refugees from the Vietnam War (which played at OSF); and Indecent by Paula Vogel, about a 1920s Yiddish play that was banned for its depiction of a lesbian relationship (OSF commission). Even the settings of some of these plays feel fresh—rural Arkansas and Reading, Pennsylvania. Traditional visions of America’s history have not only been circumscribed by race and gender, but by geography. How often do we see histories that move beyond the borders of the 13 colonies?

I have long been struck by the fact that none of the plays the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned so far have been set in Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. So I was excited to see that two Portland companies would be filling the gap for the Fertile Ground Festival.

“Astoria: Part One” at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Jennie Baker

The epic, sumptuous historical drama of the season is Astoria: Part One at Portland Center Stage (closing this weekend; part two is already scheduled for next year). Based on the nonfiction book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark, the production is adapted and directed by Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman.

And over at CoHo Productions, Tommy Smith’s db, which close earlier this month, tells the (possible) story of Dan Cooper, the still-unidentified skyjacker who diverted a Portland-to-Seattle commuter flight, then jumped out of the plane into the night with his $200,000 ransom strapped to his body. Some of the money later turned up in a river. Neither Cooper nor the rest of the money were ever found, spawning decades of theories about his ultimate fate.

Both are strong showings by their respective companies, and each of the two presents a very different model of the new American history play.

The outreach materials and events surrounding Astoria reflect Coleman and his staff’s awareness that tales of Western expansion are treading on unsteady ground. Their suggested reading list includes Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown’s classic 1970 history of the West from the Native American perspective), and they hosted a Native Voices Symposium and a Panel on Native Languages in the run-up to the play’s opening—hopeful signs that a Native American perspective would be incorporated into the drama. But the first seconds of the play make it clear that despite the events surrounding the production, Native Americans would not be fully considered within it.

Astoria opens with a chorus of names. The actors step onstage and announce the principle character (out of many) that each will play. “John Jacob Astor.” “Jonathan Thorn.” “Ebenezer Fox.” But there are two jarring exceptions—a pair of actors in buckskins, one wearing a feathered headdress and the other armed with a bow, who introduce themselves as simply “the Blackfeet nation” and “the Shoshone nation.” From the opening moments, white characters are carefully individualized, while Native Americans are lumped into undifferentiated groups.

Shaun Taylor-Corbett as a Shoshone guide and Leif Norby as John Jacob Astor in “Astoria: Part One.”/Photo by Jennie Baker

Three named Native Americans do ultimately appear: Pierre and Marie Dorion (who is present in the opening roll-call, though her background is not clear at that time), a half-French couple who act as translators for one of the expeditions; and a chieftain whose real name is never mentioned, but whom the explorers nickname Le Gauche. Later, a pair of Hawaiians also make a brief appearance, and a series of unnamed Shoshone. But in many instances, especially in the first act, Native groups—from descriptions of encounters with various tribes to a sequence set in Hawaii—are mentioned but unseen.

Coleman clearly thought a great deal about all of these characters, and was plainly keen to avoid erasing them entirely. But despite their carefully rendered native languages and costumes, these pointed cameos only draw attention to the production’s failure to conceive of a narrative that could centralize them or contain them more fully—to the production’s surrender to the assumption that Real History is naturally the story of white men and their leadership, and the voices of people like women or Native Americans can only fit in brief flashes from the sidelines.

On the subject of women, the program reads like an apologetic shrug—“In short: there are few women in Astoria: Part One. Social structures in 1810 restricted women’s rights and regulated their behaviors based on gendered rules of propriety”— that permits the creative team to forego any effort to find a dramatic structure that can challenge those gendered rules rather than rehearsing them.

Watching Astoria, I could not help thinking of another Western expedition play I saw over the summer: Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, presented at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. This play told the story of an 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Daffy and stylized, jumping from 19th century to contemporary registers and back again, the bulk of the play took place with the actors careening around while hunched behind cardboard canoe hulls that they held up in front of them. The actors who portrayed the all-male expedition were a racially diverse cast of women. Much as Hamilton (to which it was inevitably compared) used its racial casting to give contemporary resonance to the power dynamics of rebel colony and colonizer, the cast of women in Men on Boats allowed for an extremely compelling portrait of white masculinity and the inescapable threads of patriarchy and white supremacy embedded within the notion of Manifest Destiny. While both plays still center their actual plot on powerful white men, the frame is shifted to one of inclusion. And in purely practical terms, that means more roles for women and actors of color.

This, after all, is the sort of artistry the theatre can much more easily accommodate than film: a complete rejection of naturalism can allow something as radical as Hamilton or Men on Boats to slip into a more-or-less traditional shape.

Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

db lacks even a traditional structure. Playwright Tommy Smith takes a page from the Caryl Churchill school of history, and his play is reminiscent of her dizzying, nonlinear early history plays such as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Smith’s relentless pace, hopping back and forth between potential lives of Cooper and the skyjacking itself from the perspective of a stewardess, demands focus and close attention. But with this structural strangeness, he weaves a historical tale that may center on and be named after a white man but is in fact more intimately concerned with its female characters, one of whom is transgender (and played by a cis woman, which is the preferable choice, assuming a trans* actor was sought and could not be found). While some of these women slip too easily into stereotypes, the bold, non-naturalistic storytelling makes this feel more forgivable than, for example, Astoria’s mostly useless scolding wife, Mrs. Sarah Astor.

But wait! The program assures us that despite her marginalized role in the play, Mrs. Astor was in fact canny and powerful. Her dowry allowed John Jacob Astor to make a start in business, she made some clever real estate deals in Manhattan, she drew a salary from her husband’s company as a consultant. But knowing that doesn’t help as long as we continue to insist that stories like Mrs. Astor’s are fun facts for the program, not the substance of drama themselves.

Astoria is a beautifully designed, ambitious play, and is far from alone in hewing to a more traditional historical cast and narrative. But that obvious ambition was what made me begin to wish that the artistic team had directed their considerable talent, passion, and resources to a more rigorous interrogation of traditional narratives of Western exploration. db, while not without its flaws, situates itself between the knowns and unknowns of history, and in doing so, finds a form that does not depend on the kinds of historical heroes we have grown so used to seeing.

At their best, the new wave of history plays are challenging our received shape of history itself. They are questioning how the stories we know can be embodied, or the nature of the histories we can tell. The history of the Pacific Northwest is particularly rich with untold stories, long obscured in the popular imagination by tales of intrepid explorers, blazing trails across the continent while docile wives and stoic natives trailed in their wake. It’s exciting to see local companies diving into local history, and I hope they keep at it—and keep challenging traditions about what that history looks like, too.

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