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Review: Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones' DUTCHMAN Is a Powerful Punch in the Gut at American Stage

A Devastating Play About Race

Review: Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones' DUTCHMAN Is a Powerful Punch in the Gut at American Stage

 

"Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky/How sweet it would be if I found I could fly/Oh I'd soar to the sun and look down to the sea/Then I'd sing 'cause I know yeah.../Then I'd sing 'cause I know yeah.../Then I'd sing 'cause I know.../II'd know how it feels/Oh I know how it feels to be free..." --Nina Simone, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," a song played near the beginning of American Stage's DUTCHMAN

Potent. Stinging. Infuriating. Grab-your-collar-and-shake-you-awake. Rattling. Terrifying. Pummeling. Scalding, like hot coffee splashed in the face. These are some of my first reactions after watching the remarkably staged and still timely DUTCHMAN at American Stage. Driving home afterwards I found myself fidgeting in the car, unable to be comfortable. And my hand was shaking. I had just experienced one of the most infamous, enraging plays about being Black in America--a play now almost sixty years old. Yes, it hits with the subtlety of a Stanley Kramer sledgehammer, but it does so unblinkingly and unapologetically. And here I am, hours later, and I'm still shaking.

The title DUTCHMAN refers to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a ghostly slave ship doomed for eternity to never make port, to sail and sail the oceans until the end of time. The Black Nationalist playwright, LeRoi Jones, in his last show before acquiring the name Amiri Baraka, takes the Dutchman legend, rips it from the nautical origins and transports it to a New York City subway. On this subway sit two individuals--a black man in a suit and tie, and a white woman with red hair, the latter who symbolizes white society and ultimately becomes the Black man's doom.

The well-dressed man's name is Clay, and the choosing of that name is not accidental; he's like actual clay in your hands, unformed, easily molded by the white world. Donning glasses, a tie, a light tan suit and brown shoes, he's trying to assimilate himself into white society and could be as Wonder Bread bland as the bespectacled Mr. Peepers; he's a black man losing himself, his identity, his race. The red-headed white woman is Lula, one of the stage's most horrific characters. In one of the most overt symbols in modern playwriting, she devours apples and offers them to Clay, who also eats one, Adam to her Eve. But Lula is more than just Eve; she's the serpent also, the white devil, destined to destroy the Black man.

The play debuted on March 24, 1964, four months before the signing of the Civil Rights Act and eleven months before the assassination of Malcolm X. It was a powder keg with audiences that year, the sizzling hot-button show that, although quite different in style, examined race the way Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf dissected marriage two years before. It was controversial with much of the reaction divided by color: The majority of the first audiences were white, and they obviously were aghast with the show's in-your-face confrontation; when it was later moved to Harlem, Black audiences could see a work that actually mirrored their rage. It's now 58 years old, and it still has that power to enrage, to push your feelings, to actually "go there" aggressively, sexually, and most important of all, thematically. You felt the energy in the American Stage theatre, and when all was said and done, the standing ovation afterwards was not divided by race. Both white and Black people rose to their feet in admiration for the angered excellence that they had just witnessed.

The American Stage version opens not with the subway, but with a prologue of such horrifying beauty. As storms rage, like rains of injustice, with lightning flashes zapping the stage, Black cast members dressed in white move about in front of wooden planks that resemble stockades. A loud disembodied voice proclaims, "The great voyage!" There are screams in the distance, and the performers movements, gorgeously choreographed by Alexander Jones, continue. We're on a slave ship, and if you look up, above the audience, more wooden planks hover like we're the ones actually under the deck of this slave ship. The whole thing is awesomely hideous and stunning, scary and oh so beautiful, all at the same time; we can't take our eyes off it. I realized right away that we are in the grips of a visionary director, someone who dares push the envelope creatively, going all in and then some. And when a mammoth white sheet falls center stage, exposing the subway set, the audience applauded. "Nowhere to Run" by Martha and the Vandellas, one of the great Motown hits of the Sixties but given new meaning here, blares, and we are now in 1964 in "the flying underbelly of the city" where we find Clay and Lula.

Adebowale Adebiyi is pitch-perfect as Clay, the would-be black Baudelaire. He starts off kind of enjoying the crazy spiel of Lula, going along with her overt sensuality. But he changes, and in one of the finest, most devastating monologues ever written, he goes off on Lula, finding his voice as a Black man. He tells her that Black people like Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker have focused their understandable rage by turning it into art, music and poetry: "Charlie Parker? Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, 'Up your ass, feebleminded ofay! Up your ass.' And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-Seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note! And I'm the great would-be poet." Mr. Adebiyi is so commanding in this scene that the audience joined in, enthusiastically shouting back, loudly agreeing with his spiel as if in church. At one point in the monologue, Clay says, "They'll cut your throats, and drag you out to the edge of your cities so the flesh can fall away from your bones, in sanitary isolation." And the audience's response to this? Applause. It's one of the most galvanizing monologues, beautifully performed by Mr. Adebiyi, full of passion and rage, where Clay comes into his own. If for just a moment.

As Lula, Shannon Mary Keegan is freakishly sultry and scary. Colorfully dressed, she breaks Clay's personal space often, rubbing him, grabbing his crotch and leaving her hand there. Ms. Keegan hits just the right notes, where we don't quite know where she's going, but we know it's not going to be good. From the first moment, when she puts her feet on the subway seat as if she owned it, she knows she is the essence of white privilege. She verbally abuses Clay with a smile on her face; she loves every minute of her deadly play. She dances to music in her head, and she'll utter the n-word without a blink. And when she called Clay "just a dirty white man," people in the audience loudly hissed. She, the mirror of white society and their treatment of the Black people, is the ultimate villain, and Keegan unflinchingly gives a deadly and dazzling portrayal of this.

The ensemble lends powerful support, including Massiel Evans, Deisha King, Jessica Jannelle, Kate Foster, and Evan Smith. Tyrese Pope is perfectly cast as Lula's next victim, where the show surprisingly moves to contemporary times, a choice that works wonders. The fantastic Enoch King as the conductor has a great moment near the shows end, where he tells so much in just his style of walking and facial expressions. Hannah Hockman's character, a white woman passenger, seems to enjoy the abuse Lula thrusts on Clay, laughing at some terrifying lines, underscoring the hideousness of the situation. She reads a MAD magazine, issue #87 from June 1964; on the cover is Alfred E. Neuman upside-down on this head. That's the way DUTCHMAN makes you feel: Like your world has been turned upside down.

The tech elements are off the charts. Aaron Muhl's sound design is one of the best in recent memory. Particularly strong is the roar of the subway merged with the creaking sound of a slave ship. Dalton Hamilton's lighting design punctuate each important moment, and in a key scene, as the stage is bathed in red, brings home the sad truth that ends this play. Om Jae has created harrowing stage combat, although I wasn't a fan of the obviously faked stage slap. And Natalie Burton's costumes suit the time periods perfectly, especially the world of '64.

Teresa Williams' set, painted by Michaela Dougherty, sets the mood. The subway car sits upon a large wheel that is often turned by the ensemble, as history keeps turning but never changing. Underneath that is a sort of wooden carousel carved with images of slaves. And the subway is rightfully dirty and dingy, the seats aged, battered and worn. The whole set becomes an incredible achievement in design.

Leading the way, the person behind the power and strength of this ballsy production, is Erica Sutherlin, who in my esteem has presented one of the best-directed shows in recent memory. This is a director with vision, passion, and guts. A true artist is at work here; she directs sure-footed but heavy-hearted and sometimes too heavy-handed. She takes risks. I had a major qualm with one element of her show, and to mention what it is I have to state that it includes a SPOILER ALERT. In the play, a Black man is murdered by a white person, and the body is lifted out of the subway car and sprawled on the ground. Moans echo as mourners cry and shout over the dead body. At this moment, looking at the tragic young Black man, I wrote in my notebook how the image hits us today and I started writing the names of the Black men murdered: "There's George Floyd. There's Emmett Till. There's Trayvon Martin. There's..." And suddenly, on the stage, projected images of George Floyd and pictures of the KKK appeared; although the projections curated by Boyzell Hosey were fantastic, it was too forced in an Oliver Stone kind of way for my tastes. The audience had already reached that same conclusion, had connected the dots on their own; we didn't need the slides to spoon-feed this important point. But that's what good direction does; not all risks work, but we, the audience, are thankful that an ultra-talented director has the fortitude to take these risks, to have the actors go all in, to showcase a vision of a work that has not lessened its impact in a world that obviously has not learned.

Although everyone should see DUTCHMAN--it's quite a raw ride, unforgettable--some will stay away because they don't want to confront the in-your-face reality of it all. And audience members should be made uncomfortable by DUTCHMAN. It's very entertaining, fast-moving, but you should feel socked in the paunch by it. If not, something is terribly wrong. But that may be the issue in today's world. We may be becoming desensitized, shying away from these important conversations. Still, I believe that no matter how jaded we as a nation become, DUTCHMAN will continue to shake you to your core. It will grab hold of you, and believe me, it won't let go. It's one of the most crucial, compelling plays written in the past sixty years. It rattled me when I first read it nearly four decades ago; seeing it at American Stage, the rattle has now turned into an earthquake. And that's a good thing. Because it you are not disturbed by DUTCHMAN, if it does not awaken something in your soul, then that may be even more frightening than the play itself.

Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones' DUTCHMAN plays at American Stage thru July 31st.

 




From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)


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