If you want to see a serious, piercing, unforgettable play about the deep truths of America, see Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes.”
It could be subtitled “The American Killing Fields.” The expansion of colonial America to the West, its manifest destiny, a myth we’ve all learned in school, was a cover for genocide. The U.S. was built on savagery, a holocaust, the slaughter of Native Americans, and Tracy Letts tells it brilliantly, with Anna Shapiro’s direction emphasizing the banality that covers up horror, true in the U.S. as in Germany.
When Joe Biden and other politicians get on their perch of moral superiority to declaim about alleged genocide in Ukraine (even the unproved and sometimes disproved accusations are minuscule compared to what the U.S. did in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), I want to drag them to this play. It shows not only the U.S. foundation on murder, but makes a link to the endemic corruption of American politics.
The multi-talented Letts, who also plays the small town Mayor Superba (some names are Dickensian), has set this up so cleverly, starting out with the boredom of every day Americana, a local council meeting set at tables covered with bottles and detritus. And Good-Ole-Boys members.
But what horror this satire of mini-corruption hides. The truth comes out in bits. The football team is named “The Savages.” A council member Ms. Innes (Blair Brown, a major Broadway actor, as are others in this play) reads a statement about “a certain rape and abortion, though the former mayor served no jail time.”
Hannratty (Danny McCarthy), whose sister uses a wheel chair, is trying to get approval for an accessible ramp to a park fountain. There is a diversionary argument about whether one should use the word “handicapped” or “impaired.” Blake (K. Todd Freeman), very good as a cynical guy with drink in hand, is the only black. He says, “If you vote for Lincoln Smackdown, I will blow my hooter in support of your handicap bill.” Hannratty declares, “Disabled.” Blake corrects, “Infirm.” The definition of smackdown is to come.
At the center of the park is the bronze statue of a soldier revered in schools and churches for saving a young girl captured by Sioux warriors in 1872. There’s an annual reenactment of the battle at Mackie Creek where, the story goes, the Sioux shot every white man, stole a young girl, and one soldier saved her but was killed by three arrows. Innes calls for “a moment of silence to honor the fallen and the sacrifices they made so that we may live as we now do: in safety and comfort, surrounded by our families and friends, with health insurance and ripe fruit, and a hopeful tear in our eye.’
It’s the sesquicentennial of the event, and they want a money-maker. It will be a smackdown of a man in a loin cloth fighting Lincoln in a stovepipe hat, in a cage. Hannratty says, “I find Lincoln Smackdown a deeply offensive idea and so does anyone else who is a person of conscience.” He is dismissed.
Innes says, “There is no event, no document, no motto or creed, indeed no person more important to the preservation of our civic mission than this festival. It is the pride of our city, our state, our people. In short, it is who we are.” Indeed it is.
A new council member, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), is trying to figure out what happened at the last meeting he missed but nobody wants to supply the minutes, which are taken by Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller, better known as the star of “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical.”) Or to explain why council member Carp (Ian Barford) is not present.
He will find out that Carp raised an issue of corruption, the local sheriff, brother of council member Assalone (Jeff Still) (particular about the pronunciation of his name) recovering lost and stolen bikes and instead of giving them to poor kids, selling them on eBay.
But that corruption is minor in the pantheon of immorality compared to the horrific truth of how the town got its name.
We learn that the week before, Carp suggested the county would be better off without festival. He had discovered at the local junior college an oral history that a Sioux woman who was at the Battle at Mackie Creek told her granddaughter, Red Star. How when the men were away hunting, solders came, said the Sioux had stolen eggs, and massacred 122 women and children. The young girl, who escaped, asked, “Why? We had our own chickens?” When the men returned, they were locked in a stockade. A white family found oil on their land and became very rich. Did white Americans get rich from stealing Native Americans’ lands? Of course they did. Does it matter? Of course not, the system is built on theft. The thieves and their protectors run it.
Carp wants to use the festival to teach people of their actual heritage, to apologize as a start. “There’s an old lady who lives in our town whose ancestors were slaughtered so we could build a Rexall Drug. She woke up every day in a town named for a slur on her ethnicity.” Didn’t they owe each other the decency of truth? He would bring the story to a local paper.
Now the threats come. How did he know about the bikes stored in a secure town facility? The sheriff is on his way. Carp wonders, “What are you going to do, make me disappear?”
They pass a resolution “that Sergeant Otto Pym’s triumph over the Sioux uprising is the official history of Big Cherry and that Big Cherry Public Schools will advance only this official history, enabling a rising generation to better understand the principles of the founding of Big Cherry.” They also voted against an accessible path to the fountain. The mayor explains how things work. Does Peel get the message?
It could be an echo of the resolutions being passed in several Republican state houses.
To make the dramatic point, the council members descend into a bloody celebration of their murderous history. Guaranteed to be banned in those same Republican states.
“The Minutes.” Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. New York City. 212-239-6200. Runtime 1:30. Opened April 17, 2022, closes July 24, 2022. See review on NY Theatre Wire. @minutesbway. See review on NY Theatre Wire.