The Brave and the Bold: U-M’s "Men on Boats" injects a historic expedition with a fresh perspective


University of Michigan's production of Men on Boats

Rehearsal photo of U-M Department of Theatre and Drama's production of Men on Boats. Photo courtesy UMSMTD.

In 1869, John Wesley Powell led a 10-man expedition to map and gather information on a large swath of the American West, from Wyoming to the Grand Canyon along the Green and Colorado rivers. Powell was a geologist, naturalist, anthropologist, and veteran officer of the Civil War.

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus takes a satiric look at this famous manly journey into the unknown by casting her play Men on Boats with 10 women. 

Emily Lyon, a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan, is directing a “non-man” cast in a U-M Department of Theatre and Drama presentation of Men on Boats, Nov. 11-14, at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

Lyon said she was intrigued by Backhaus’ idea of having women fill those positions that history had filled with men. She said she wants to fill that space and have her cast “become explorers and adventurers and stepping into that sense of bravado, letting 10 young women and non-binary actors own the stage in the way that men in the 1800s felt that they owned the land is a fun and bold project.”

Lyon is returning to her alma mater as a guest director with an extensive resume of stage and film projects. She has been based in Brooklyn, New York for the last nine years.

Backhaus’ play, which opened in New York in 2015, fits into Lyon’s personal goals and her goals as a director. 

In an interview at the University’s Student Union, she talked about her frustrations as an actress and the kind of portrayals she was getting as an actor.

“I got into theater when I was quite young, and, frankly, applied myself quite well,” she said. “I got frustrated as an actor about how women were being portrayed and could be portrayed, the roles I was getting to play, and then how much I was or wasn’t the butt of the joke rather than a fully complex human being.”

She formed a philosophy for directing around conversation building.

“I think directing is being in conversation with the community about how and who we want to be as a society,” she said. “I get to ensure from that perspective that the conversation is dynamic and asking the challenging questions, and allows everyone in the conversation to be a fully realized, complex and interesting human.”

She said she enjoys the collaborative aspects of directing, the ongoing conversation “with everyone on the team.”

“That’s how I like to work, creating together, but I am also very much a text-based director,” she said.

She would like to see more texts by women playwrights recognized.

“One of my main projects at the moment is We’re curating a list of classic plays by women that we’d love to see included in the canon because women have always been writing,” she said. “That ties into the directing theme, but thinking about contemporary text very much in the same way, what conversation do we want to have now?”

Men on Boats is a play that invites those kinds of conversations.

“I love being able to empower the actors and give them license not only to be themselves within these roles but also to be bigger than they thought they could be in these roles,” Lyon said. “There’s the physicality of the show that is really exciting, dynamic, and curious. There are scenes where actors are going down waterfalls or getting caught in a whirlpool, so I was intrigued to know how we could do that.”

But Lyon is especially interested in the way the play fits into our current national conversation.

“As a country we are getting into conversations about statues and legacies and whose histories we want to uplift, sort of in the canon of Hamilton, which was written around the same time as this play,” Lyon said. “I think it’s interesting to meditate on what we know and what we’re curious about honestly. Can we take a pause and look at those other histories and reflect them and remember them. We are responding to the moment and this desire to see more diversity on stage, gender diversity, and racial diversity.”

University of Michigan's production of Men on Boats

Rehearsal photo of U-M Department of Theatre and Drama's production of Men on Boats. Photo courtesy UMSMTD.

Lyon said there are a number of moments in the text where Backhaus reminds the audience that the lands that Powell and his company “explore” were already occupied and their story and the names they gave to their home are often not as well known. Lyon said that the stories of those other than white men have not been examined as much.

Powell is a controversial figure, though much admired in his own time. His writings on anthropology contain classifications of various ethnic and racial groups as inherently inferior to white Europeans. And, yet, he was also a noted conservationist and naturalist.

“Powe, you can see as a lovely steward of the land, who for the time was attempting to preserve native history and do what he thought was right to take care of the land he had visited and renamed or he can be the man who had a legacy of subjugating natives in his research and in how he talked about them and took so much of the spoils of the expedition,” Lyon said.

Emerson Mae Smith plays Powell. Smith is a senior in the BFA program from Rye, New York. In an email interview, she wrote that Powell is an interesting and “extremely complicated” figure who could be seen as both heroic and deeply flawed.

“Powell held deeply racist beliefs that line up with many ‘accepted’ truths of the time, but the fact that his opinions were popular should neither excuse him nor damn him completely,” she wrote. “Like so many historical white men, he has been deified to the point of obfuscation in regards to his legacy. He was a true explorer, and I feel a great deal of personal responsibility portraying him to many people who may never have heard his name, especially young people like myself.”

Smith wrote that Lyon told the cast not to create caricatures of manhood.

“She was more curious about watching her female cast embody 10 men as human beings fighting for their lives against the elements and history itself,” Smith wrote. “As a transgender woman portraying a man onstage again for the first time in years, this process has been a fascinating chance to reclaim my own masculinity in a safe environment full of supportive cast mates attempting the same feat. I had fears about doing badly, but also doing too well and what that would say about my identity. However, something we discovered while working is just how fluid masculinity and femininity can be inside the same character, the same actor. Discovering the moments when Powell expresses himself femininely has been invigorating and empowering.”

Like Lyon, Smith sees Backhaus’ play as a way to start conversations about “the ways we mythologize the ‘great men of this nation.’”

“In the play, we are able to see them both as the strong cantankerous, unruly explorers they were, while also looking at their underbelly, their fears and vulnerability, the deep love that held for each other,” Smith wrote. “For so many men even today admitting emotional vulnerability is incredibly difficult and there is something so special about seeing a cast of women embody and portray moments that these men could never have in real life.”

Mackenzie Holley, a U-M sophomore from West Bloomfield who recently moved to Grand Blanc, plays the role of William Dunn, a friend of Powell who joins a group that leaves the expedition midway and in anger.

“Dunn is a smart man who is very strong-minded and confident in his beliefs,” she wrote in an email. “I think Dunn just wants to help Powell and his crew so they won’t die, but also because he loves him. His best friend/boat mate, Powell, never gives him credit or takes what he is saying into consideration. So there becomes this conflict if Dunn should follow the crowd and them ignore what he thinks is right? Or should he trust his heart and separate?”

This is Holley’s second production of Men on Boats, playing a different character in a production last year. That production was cut short because of the pandemic,

She wrote that she likes the way Backhaus presents the relationship of Powell and Dunn.

“Diving into the beauty of brotherhood,” Holley wrote. “Powell and Dunn have a relationship where they have to present as being very strong men, but when they are together alone, they have more vulnerability. Adding to that, Dunn has so much to say but doesn’t always get to say it, making his final goodbye to Powell one of the hardest decisions.”

Lyon said the actors don’t need to be “overly precious” in their interpretations of the historic figures.

“The playwright has given us really contemporary language and is looking to us to relate to them where we are today, our frame of mind and our language,” Lyon said. “I’ve been encouraging them to take ownership of this journey and the characters and they’ve been responding beautifully to that, which has been fun to watch.”

She said that staging the play has also been fun. 

“I wanted to play with the theatricality and what it lends us in a sort of Our Town-ish sort of way that allows the emotions and the relationships of the story to be our foothold for where we’re going and then let the actors shine in creating this world for us,” she said.

Lyon said she hopes the audience will leave curious about “the histories we don’t discuss. What the women and the trans and the native folks were doing in the 1800s, what they’re doing now, what they were doing before and start demanding that we widen our scope of history as we learn and whose legacies we honor.”

Holley said she hopes the audience realizes “how easy it is for history to be written and changed into something that glorifies white, straight, cis, men. Also, how most, if not all, of the land we are on in America has been stolen, yet we just go about our days acting like it is, again, the ‘white man’s.’”

Smith agrees that there is much to learn in this play.

“I hope our audience comes out of this show laughing and thoughtful,” she wrote. “There is a lot of love about these men and their journey, but a lot of questions as well. I hope folks feel encouraged to do their research and learn more!”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama presents "Men on Boats" at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Nov. 11, 8 pm on Friday-Saturday, Nov. 12-13, and 2 pm on Sunday, Nov. 14, at the Arthur Miller Theatre, Walgreen Drama Center. For more info, visit or call 734-764-2538.