Theater alliance debuts new play

The Putnam Theatre Alliance, a partnership between the Philipstown Depot Theatre, Arts on the Lake in Kent and the Tompkins Corners Cultural Center in Putnam Valley, is seeing the results of its collaboration over three March weekends with the premiere of a new play, Dirt. 

Dirt is the culmination of a two-year project that began during the pandemic shutdown when the alliance commissioned three playwrights who were strangers to each other — Nan Nelson-Ewing, Vickie Ramirez and Kate Moira Ryan — to write one-act plays using archival material from the Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring and the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, among other sources. 

putnam playwrights
Clockwise from top: Nan-Lynn Nelson, Kate Moira Ryan, Alice Jankell, Vicki Ramirez

Each was assigned a character: Daniel Nimham, chief of the Wappinger tribe, landowner Mary Philipse Morris and Cesar, a miller enslaved by the Philipse family.

“In my case, I took that as a carte blanche to write a complete arc about Daniel and his world,” Ramirez recalls. “The adventure was finding out in the next step how Daniel’s perspective and his world interacted with the other two pieces.”

Before being interwoven, the one-acts were presented in readings under the title Pay Dirt because each revolved around land ownership. For the British, land was passed down to a male son, while for the Dutch it could be bequeathed to a daughter. For the Wappinger, there was no concept of ownership, only stewardship.

Each character struggles with allegiances, says director Alice Jankell. “During those years many Wappinger, including Chief Daniel Nimham, went off to fight for the British during an earlier conflict, then returned home to find their land was taken from them. 

“Meanwhile, the Philipse family increased their land holdings twentyfold,” she says. “People had to make decisions about whether to fight for the crown or colony, and sometimes found themselves face to face with people they had fought alongside 12 years before” during the French and Indian War.

“After doing this abundant research, the big-picture question became, ‘How do we turn it into a play?’ ” Jankell says. The answer was to “humanize it by focusing on individuals with huge decisions to make.” 

Dirt actors
Cast members, clockwise from upper left: Dylan Carusona, Gabriel Pages, Hasan Gray, Devin Gibbs, Jaz Astwood, Maia Guest, Damien Hughes, Jolie Cloutier

The research sparked conversations about land ownership and what constitutes home, says Jankell. “We started looking carefully at rocks, stones, gravestones for enslaved people. The more we looked, the more we saw there were stories, secrets, redactions, drama and emotions. A theater’s job is not to decide who is right and who is wrong. It’s not to lecture. Theater’s job is to tell human stories and connect them on an emotional level. 

“We became less and less partisan as we went along, and came to understand that usually, decisions were made by people based on their families,” she says. “That led us to ‘Who’s going to write these people?’ The answer was people of the heritage.” 

Ramirez had little difficulty developing a vibrant, complex character who lived several hundred years ago. “People are people, aren’t they?” she says. “Whether it’s thousands of years ago or right now, we all care about our family. We get angry if we feel we were deceived, or taken advantage of.”

The diverse cast has Native American, Scottish and Argentinian actors, including Jaz Astwood, Dylan Carusona, Devin Gibbs, Hasan Gray, Maia Guest, Damien Hughes, Jolie Cloutier and Gabriel Pages. The assistant director is Hampton Fluker.

DIRT will be presented at the Philipstown Depot Theatre on March 8, 9 and 10; at Arts on the Lake on March 15, 16 and 17 and at Tompkins Corners on March 23 and 24. Tickets are $10 to $30. See philipstowndepottheatre.org for links. 

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Rooney has been writing for The Current since its founding in 2010. A playwright, she has lived in Cold Spring since 1999. She is a graduate of Binghamton University, where she majored in history. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of Expertise: Arts

Leave a comment

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.