When Rattlesnake Kate premieres at the Wolf Theatre downtown on February 4, Centennial State history buffs will have Neyla Pekarek to thank for it. Pekarek, a former cellist and vocalist for folk rock band the Lumineers, developed the idea for the musical after a visit to the Greeley History Museum in 2008, when she was a student at the University of Northern Colorado. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of this woman,” Pekarek says of Coloradan Katherine McHale Slaughterback, who killed 140 rattlesnakes when she and her three-year-old son inadvertently walked into a viper migration just outside of Hudson in 1925. “Kate was an unconventional woman who said what she thought, and that felt inspiring for a person like me. I’m kind of a people pleaser.”
Between tours and recording sessions with her bandmates, Pekarek continued to research Kate’s life beyond the infamous snake incident. A year after Pekarek left the two-time Grammy-nominated Lumineers in 2018 to embark on a solo career, she released her debut album, Rattlesnake, which included songs about Kate and became the inspiration for the musical.
The show’s narrative, however, goes well beyond the story of a woman caught in a snake pit. Karen Hartman, the project’s playwright, suggests the musical’s themes are a metaphor for a woman pursuing independence at all costs. “That spirit of rage in Kate that allowed her to fight those snakes and win is a kind of epic anger against the patriarchy,” says Hartman, a Brooklyn-based writer, Guggenheim fellow, and New York University instructor known for plays that focus on complicated narratives about race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Pekarek and Hartman’s project aligned serendipitously with Denver Center for the Performing Arts artistic director Chris Coleman’s vision for the nonprofit. Theatergoers might be surprised to see that Slaughterback will be portrayed at three different ages by three different women of color. Coleman believes this technique—successfully employed in the hit Broadway show Hamilton, in which nonwhite actors portray slaveholding Founding Fathers—provides an opportunity to complicate Western narratives that often render people of color invisible. “Yes, (Rattlesnake Kate) is inspired by the particulars of a white lady in the early part of the 20th century and the battles she fought,” Coleman says. “But in that same period there were Chinese women on farms, and Japanese women, and Mexican women, and Black women, whose histories aren’t led with when you talk about pioneer days in Colorado.” That kind of creative representation holds a special meaning for Pekarek, who hasn’t been shy about the difficulties of being a woman in the music industry: In a 2013 interview with Rookie magazine, she described having to talk twice as loud and perform twice as hard—in heels.
On top of all that, Pekarek (who will play Kate’s horse, Brownie) is excited for audiences to experience the show in person, after COVID-19-induced hiatuses. “I’m thrilled that we’re back in a safe place to be able to produce live theater,” Pekarek says. “But I also think these questions of feeling marginalized and living our most authentic selves—I think that’s more important than ever before.”