I saw This Space Between Us last week, a funny, touching, and thought-provoking play written by Peter Gil-Sheridan and performed by a strong ensemble of six. The play was presented by the Keen Company, one of the many theater organizations in New York City.
As I have written about before, I read and save Playbills. Search Results for “playbill” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog) This one had a multi-page insert that briefly told me about the Keen Company and more extensively about the foundations and individuals who have given money to it, how I could donate to the Company, and how the audience could promote the play. All this was ordinary stuff, the usual kind of information in a Playbill.
What was different, however, was a paragraph headed Land Acknowledgement, which told me that I was “in New York City, which is the traditional land of the Lenape people. Keen Company recognizes the long history of the territory we occupy, and its significance for the indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live and work here. We pay our respects and gratitude to the Elders, both past and present, for their stewardship of this region.”
I did not completely understand this. What did stewardship of this region entail? Was this stewardship ongoing? Was it a reference to a particular plot of ground that encompassed 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues where the theater is? Or did it refer to the time when the Lenape lived as a people on lands in the Northeast?
So what was the point to this wokeness? Lenape were forced from their lands in the Northeast almost two centuries ago and even earlier for Manhattan. Driven further and further west, they are now largely in five different tribes located in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Does this paragraph in a Playbill insert for an off-Broadway production make the Lenape living far from New York City feel better?
I also wondered if the paragraph fit with what is supposed to be the mission of the theater company and the theme of the play that I saw. The Playbill stated that “Keen Company is an award-winning Off-Broadway theatre creating story-driven work that champions identification and connection. In intimate productions of plays and musicals, the company tells stories about the decisive moments that change us.” Did that paragraph about the Lenape champion identification and connection and was it about a decisive moment that changes us? If so, I did not see it. I did not feel any more decisively connected with the Lenape after reading Land Acknowledgement than I had been before.
And This Space Between Us made me question the paragraph further. In the play, Ted, a vegan, corrects the political incorrectness of others and is fond of saying, “You can’t just talk the talk, you must walk the walk.” Jamie, Ted’s partner, announces that he wants to walk the walk and is leaving his high paid legal job to work for an NGO that tries to better lives in Eritrea. At the core of this amusing and touching play is walking the walk and how mere talk accomplishes little. I could not see how the smug Lenape paragraph truly advanced anything. It seemed simply to talk the talk.
The Keen Company could have tried to get its audience to take a step or two. It at least could have told us that there is a Lenape Center in New York and urged us to visit and support it. We might have been told that the Brooklyn Public Library has been holding programs featuring some Lenape people whose ancestors were forced to Oklahoma and Wisconsin. And the paragraph might have said that there is an exhibition about the Lenape curated by Lenape at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Instead, we got only that the Keen Company paid their respects and gratitude to non-defined Elders, and I thought, as I do about many politically correct statements, that it is not expected or even meant to accomplish anything other than to make the speakers or writers feel better about themselves.
This Space Between Us, however, is worth seeing.
One thought on “Lenape Land on 42nd Street”
The “land acknowledgment” issue may be becoming a contentious issue at certain colleges. There was threatened litigation over it very recently, and the faculty at San Diego State University has just narrowly voted to rescind a rule that required faculty members to include such a statement on all of their syllabuses. See: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2022/03/03/sdsu-faculty-votes-end-land-acknowledgment-requirement
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