Dare to Rock the Boat

By Hannah Clague, Education & Community Programs Fellow

On the first page of her play Men on Boats, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus gives a note on casting: “The characters in Men on Boats were historically cisgender white males. The cast should be made up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”

In creating an event to accompany A.C.T.’s mainstage production of Men on Boats, we in A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs department wanted to reflect Backhaus’s vision. Just as the playwright created a world in which actors from a variety of genders are given voice to tell John Wesley Powell’s story, we wanted to produce an event that provided a space in which people of a variety of genders could tell their own.

I remember sitting in Mrs. Ross’s fifth-grade US History class, flipping through the pages of our History Alive! textbooks (cue my classmates’ precocious giggling that history is not, in fact, alive). I recall not finding very many women or girls, particularly those of color, in that questionably named book, and I remember Mrs. Ross explaining that women had been “written out” of our history books. This idea was brand new to 11-year-old me, but it wasn't new in broader American culture. Wines Elementary School wasn't the first place to recognize that men have been the sole writers of history, and it hasn't been the only school propagating a re-write since.

So, then: if America has largely (though not entirely) acknowledged that we should create spaces for women within history, why not continue expanding our understanding? What about the transgender and nonbinary kids in desks beside me? Mrs. Ross didn’t say anything about them; gender diversity wasn’t yet at the same place in our cultural understanding. And if it meant so much for fifth-grade me to be recognized by my teacher, what would it have felt like to not be recognized at all? What can we do today to help more people experience that moment of recognition?

We can start by producing events where women, transgender people, nonbinary people, and genderqueer people from diverse racial backgrounds can come together and talk about their roles, both in history and in today’s arts industry. We can recognize, support, and learn from one another how to become better leaders in our artistic fields.

Today, those retelling history are looking to dig even deeper into the narrative of historical erasure based on gender, remembering that transgender and nonbinary folks have always existed, and in turn, have been even more completely left out of historical records than women. Backhaus’s play asks: What is it like to rewrite this history, remembering those who were a part of it? Are we rocking the boat, or just restoring truth to our cultural consciousness?

We’re calling all cis-women, trans–women and men, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary theater-makers to join us Sunday, November 4, at 4:00 p.m. in A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater to celebrate a new wave of arts leadership. Click here to learn more about this completely free networking event, which includes dinner and a ticket to that night’s performance of Men on Boats. Space is limited, so RSVP today!

The all-female cast of Men on Boats poses on Market Street. Photo by Chesire Isaacs.

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