Legend has it that Peter Minuit purchased the island of Manhattan (or Manhatta) from the Lenape for the impressively trivial sum of $24 in 1626. The legend fails to mention the existence of Kitchi Amik, a six foot beaver with somewhat magical powers, the guardian of the other beavers and to some extent, of humans. The number of industrious and independent women populating the colony of New Amsterdam in the 1600's is also largely unmentioned. New Amsterdames , a new play by Ellen K. Anderson receiving its world premiere by Flying Fig Theater, seeks to correct these omissions of history by depicting several lesser known historical figures and, of course, the giant beaver. The play provides an alternate, slightly comedic view of history, seen through the eyes of those whose stories commonly do not get heard. In 1659, the deed to Manhattan, if it ever existed, is missing. Shipping entrepreneur Margriet wants the deed so that she can rule the island, making every business hers. The beavers Een and Twee want the deed so that the island can be restored to them. Everyone else wants the deed to keep it away from Margriet. Thus begins a wild hunt: where is the deed? Does it even exist? Who will get it in the end?
While the women are hunting for the deed, trouble is brewing in modern day Manhattan. The city is facing dramatic changes in the weather and an onslaught of beavers. Lightning flashes underneath a wooden platform, ominous thunder peals, and heavy rain pounds. All this is reported by newscaster Sweetie Chin, who has some connection to Kitchi Amik and the laws of nature herself.
The play provides a full immersion into all things Dutch: wooden clogs are worn by Sweetie Chin and adorn two pillars, suggesting a trail of shoes. The cast sings and dances traditional Dutch folksongs and Anna Joralemon, creator of the donut, distributes some of her olykoeken to the audience as a way of introduction.
Certain parts of the show drew laughs, for example, a little dog dressed as a baby beaver caused some audience members to shriek in excitement. However, at times the jokes in the play felt forced. In the midst of the search for the deed, Sukalan, the Lenape woman (played by Andrea Caban), runs on stage looking for her friends. Not seeing them, she exclaims: "Where'd she go? I've never lost anything in the woods. Except the time I mislaid a trap and found it by stepping into it myself.” The wooden jokes suggested a larger issue: is New Amsterdames trying to say something that has not already been said before? Women's role in history and society, the question of who the land belongs to, and the issue of race and nationality have been explored by many other stories and plays before.
And yet, one gets drawn into the plight of the women and the beavers, as modern day Manhattan is also at stake. How do the actions of people almost 350 years ago impact the world today? And by extension, how will our world's actions impact the world 350 years from now? New Amsterdames subtly raises this issue while taking its audience on a journey down a uncommonly explored path of history.