PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: The cast of Good Luck Macbeth's production of Men in Boats.

American history is chock-full of stories in which white men conquered lands and people; throughout time, they’ve been recounted as tales of heroism and bravery.

While few of us would discount the dangers these intrepid explorers faced or the importance of their discoveries, there’s no question that their successes largely hinged on the fact that they were white, cisgender men. Few other perspectives were ever considered as part of our written history.

In her play Men on Boats, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus intentionally set out to make room for other voices to tell one of these stories—that of one-armed scientist and war veteran John Wesley Powell and nine other male volunteers who, in 1869, embarked in wooden boats on a government-sanctioned expedition to chart the course of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Along the 99-day, 1,000-plus-mile journey, these 10 adventurous souls braved whitewater rapids, endured losses of supplies, survived boat crashes and encountered other wilderness dangers.

This play, currently in production at Reno’s Good Luck Macbeth Theatre, has one notable omission: the men. Specifically, no one in the play identifies as a cisgender male—and that’s by design. In her script, Backhaus provides a very important casting note: “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.”

Her reasoning? In a 2016 interview, Backhaus said: “If we were forced to keep to that sort of accuracy in the mainstream of history, we would really only be learning the stories of a select few individuals. It would just limit our scope entirely. One thing that I hope that this show is able to do for people is make them wonder about that, just by virtue of who was cast in it.”

Director Abby Rosen relished the challenge.

“When GLM approached me about directing the show, it was super-exciting, because that’s 10 opportunities—10 people who get to explore things they would never have a chance to otherwise.”

She said not only is the cast diverse in terms of background and gender, but also in age; it ranges from 22 to 65. “So everyone is having a new experience with this show,” she said.

But she emphasizes that this isn’t what the show is about. “At its core, this is a story is about finding community … about loss, about friendship and about nature. I went into it like, ‘I’m going to make this big statement about gender with this play,’ and then I found myself every night just really enjoying watching people do things. I was just watching people be people … and to me, that feels like statement enough.”

“I went into it like, ‘I’m going to make this big statement about gender with this play,’ and then I found myself every night just really enjoying watching people do things.” Director Abby Rosen

Based on journals written by Powell himself (portrayed by Jessica Johnson), the play joins the expedition as its members—who include marksman/explorer John Colton Sumner (Judy Davis Rounds), hunter/magazine publisher O.G. Howland (Lily Perez) and Lt. George Bradley (Jasmine Johnson)—must navigate the unknown, from extreme heat, rugged terrain and snakes to waterfalls and whirlpools. More than once, the volunteers question whether they ought to continue onward or abandon their mission and save themselves.

Amanda McHenry, who plays William Hawkins, a war veteran and the expedition cook, said she wrestled with how to approach her performance in light of the script’s direction.

“Like Abby, when we first started, we had this idea that we were going to smash these glass ceilings, and that it was going to be about different gender roles,” McHenry said. “But as we got into it, we began realizing that it wasn’t necessarily a big statement as much as a bunch of little statements.”

To illustrate, she explains that Hawkins, being the cook, would have used his hands a lot, and she found herself questioning whether those gestures were “masculine or feminine enough.”

“I’d say something and be like, ‘Oh, my voice was too high when I said that; a man wouldn’t do that,’” McHenry said. “It’s been fun to explore our own preconceived notions. … Those little nuances have been so interesting to me.”

Rosen also found plenty of challenge in the staging—how could she, on GLM’s relatively small stage, evoke the Grand Canyon, a raging river and 10 characters interacting while on boats? Rosen drew on organic textures—think weathered fibers, wind-and-rain-beaten corners, and natural materials. Boats constructed of PVC frames are wrapped in canvas that’s been painted, softened and torn. Stationary walls create the steep canyon, and a map painted on the floor suggests the river’s path.

Ultimately, audiences can expect far more than a history lesson. Rosen described it as ridiculous, funny and poignant all at once.

McHenry added: “I feel like when I talk to people about it, it sounds like it’s a history class. But it’s so fun. When I first read the script, I felt like I was reading a Disney adventure. It’s just a really fun show.”

Men in Boats will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, from Friday, April 28, through Saturday, May 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 7. Shows take place at 124 W. Taylor St., and tickets are $28 to $38, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 775-322-3716, or visit

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