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Theater: “A Big Blue Nail” Tells the Story of Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary at the North Pole

by admin ~ January 26th, 2008

Loy Arcenas stages a new play by Carlyle Brown, “A Big Blue Nail,” at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago (January 25 – March 2, 2008). Long underappreciated in the annals of polar exploration, Matthew Henson partnered with Robert E. Peary on his most ambitious expeditions to the North, and traveled over 9,000 miles by dogsled across northern Greenland, Ellesmere Island, and the northern Polar Sea. He is regarded by many as the first person to cross the North Pole, and arrived 45 minutes ahead of Commander Peary at what later became known as “Camp Jesup” near the northern extremity of latitude. Several years later, surrounded by media scrutiny and claims of falsehood and fabrication, Peary alone shouldered the burden of justifying distances, blank pages in his diary, and scant navigational records without the assistance of his traveling partner. As an African American, Henson was regarded as a liability in the media spotlight (and may have been spurned by Peary after the trip). In 1906, three years before obtaining their goal, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Peary the Hubbard Medal for his northern accomplishments. Henson was not awarded the same until 2000, 94 years later, in a posthumous ceremony by the National Geographic Society.

“A Big Blue Nail” unfolds as a delicate reflection on human longing, personal discovery, the spell of adventure, and the complicated interpersonal relationship and racial subtext between Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary. Set among the icy backdrop of Peary’s cold striving for recognition and personal ambition, the play looks back across time and space in various flashbacks and dreams to the initial meeting between Henson and Peary, their icy adventures in the North, travels by dogsled with the Inuit, and the search for reconciliation and personal accountability in their long standing but sometimes unacknowledged relationship. Peary shares his dreams and emotional struggles with two figurative characters in the play: ambition (represented by Tupi, a “dream devil” who inspires Peary with cajoling words and promises of treasure), and “the future” (a female muse who entices Peary with desire and into self-sacrificing attachment and commitment). Peary’s wife also has a role and confronts Henson with her own story, one of standing alone too many times in the shadows, giving support, and facing a life of sometimes difficult and limited choices. The first preview on Friday (Jan. 25, 2008) was exceptional, and I hope to attend a second performance.

Several other events are scheduled in connection with this first staging of the play. On January 31, there is an evening with Carlyle Brown and ship master Captain Daniel Moreland (an expert on square-rig and traditional sailing ships). On February 7, Carlyle Brown discusses the play’s themes, and the writing process. Please check the Victory Gardens Theater website for updates and additional information on the production, schedule, and tickets.

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