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Jenifer’s Journal: Hagar’s Island

The trouble with the “story” in “history” is that it’s already been written.

To decide to tell a story about lima bean production on a small island, for instance — to then set it to music and make it entertaining, still respecting historical accuracy, is a challenge few among us would take on — unless you’re Lisa Hashagen, of course.

That’s precisely what she did, writing, producing, and directing the Shelter Island Historical Society’s first full-length original musical, “Hill of Beans” in 2021, followed by “The Prospect of Summer,” last year. In just a few weeks, the Society will present “The Lords of Menantic,” the third musical fund-raiser written and directed by Lisa.

It’s based on the Lord family of Shelter Island, one described this way on the Society’s site: “‘Lords by name and Lords by nature’ is how one of Shelter Island’s family of aristocrats was described during the 19th century.

This peculiar household of three sea captains and two maiden sisters owned a beautiful estate on the Menantic peninsula, building and sailing boats hewn from stands of white oak. In 1804, one of their sailing vessels, Paragon, ran through the Continental blockade delivering grain to England and Captain Sam became a hero. But was he? Join us as we journey back through time and get to know “the Lord family of Shipyard Creek.”

Sounds like a rousing tale — and a true one — especially enhanced by the swashbuckling-to-beautifully-plaintive original score, but Lisa has had to find a way to weave in some serious subjects as well. For instance, the two “maiden sisters” mentioned above remained so due to the law of “coverture” which, according the Encyclopedia Brittanica, was an  “Anglo-American common-law concept, derived from feudal Norman custom, that dictated a woman’s subordinate legal status during marriage.”  

Apparently, prior to wedlock, a woman was free to  own property and do with it as she wished but, “Once she married … her legal existence as an individual was suspended under ‘marital unity,’ a legal fiction in which the husband and wife were considered a single entity: the husband, rendering him, for all intents and purposes, the owner of her property.”

Another sensitive issue which the play takes on is mental illness. Hannah, the youngest of the five Lord siblings, who was purportedly mildly eccentric as a young woman, descends into madness later in life, ironically at the very same time she finds herself in a position of considerable responsibility and authority.

And then there is “Hagar.” When offered the small role of the “last native-American on Shelter Island” a few months ago, I happily accepted. What fun to play a part so different from the nasty sophisticates I usually portray. I  (having occasionally mentioned in this column my gratitude for — better late than never — being finally awakened to my own ignorance in regard to people of color) never even thought to ask if anyone of color, ideally someone of Native-American ancestry, had been offered the role. Nope, never occurred to me.

What eventually did, however, was the heartrendingly tragic fact that in less than 150 years of white settlers coming to Shelter Island, the ancestral seat of the Sachem of all the tribes of Long Island, it should be entirely bereft of its indigenous people, save one. 

Lisa had to deal with that hard fact as well. Recently she sent me the following excerpt from “The Interesting Reminiscences of Daniel Miner Lord:”

“The name Menantic is an Indian name and was said to mean ‘Chief of the Island.’ In Menantic Creek, just east of the home was an island at high tide. On this island, when the family moved there, lived an old Indian woman, the last of her tribe, whose name was Hagar. This lonely old woman lived in this island in a shanty in the middle of it, surrounded by trees.”

In a show full of energy, music, and adventure there is reverence, too, for the Island, for Hagar and for history, however glorious or grotesque. These are the excerpt’s last lines:

“Hagar’s Island was always kept as she left it and was a place where we as children made frequent pilgrimages and dreamed and wondered over the mysteries that were held in that little island home.” The Lords of Menantic will run from Thursday, July 20 through Sunday, July 23. For tickets and information visit shelterislandhistorical.org.