by RS Bailey
What happens when a sharp looking blonde comes on to a middle class black businessman on the subway? One would have to think “not too much” these days, but in 1964 when this play was first performed the subject matter was volatile. The common stereotypes of the day were that a blonde white woman was middle class and that a black man was an uneducated criminal or maintenance worker. A black man even looking at a white woman with sexual interest on a NY subway was dangerous behavior.
First some background. The play premiered before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a constitutional amendment had just outlawed poll taxes, and the Virginia State Supreme Court shut down public schools in order to avoid having to integrate them. Restaurants and restrooms in the south still proudly displayed signs segregating “colored” and “white”; and de facto racial segregation ran rampant throughout the U.S., and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa.
Jones was one of the leading black poets of the late ‘50s and shortly after the premiere of this play changed his name to Amiri Baraka and became a major literary proponent of Black Nationalism. It can be said he helped set the tone for the organization of the Black Panther Party.
The world we live in today is decidedly different from 1964 and yet play not only holds up, it still packs a punch. It was one of the earliest plays to “confront” the audience directly and still does so effectively. It was also among the first to present raw sexuality on stage and holds it own there as well. For these reasons alone, the play is worth seeing.
The current production features Deforrest Taylor as Clay, the young business man and Iva Stemlak as Lula, the sexually bold woman. All in all, they both turn in fine performances but they seem unstuck in time. The performances are too declarative in the beginning but open up and become more natural in rhythm and flow as the play moves on. There is no trepidation about a black man checking out a hot white woman or the white woman flaunting the power it gave her when she caught him doing it. In this production it is more amatory than ominous. In 1964, it could have been reason for an enraged assault by white strangers, even in New York.
But by the time Taylor gets to Clay’s incendiary monologue toward the end of the play, he catches fire and not only brings it to life but makes the racial rage of the early 60s every bit as relevant today as it was then. Stemlak excels when she is at the most sexually aggressive and racially vicious. For added effect, the actors bring the rhythm of the movement of the subway effectively to life, shaking and leaning throughout the ride and as train starts and stops.
April Daisy White’s direction concentrates on the physical elements of the production, like keeping her cast bouncing from the movement of the train, at some expense to the performances. From time to time she let’s her cast fall into the strong rhythms of Jones’ beat poetry, which can tend to drone and work against the power of the dramatic situation.
The production aspects are top notch. Burris Jackes set design puts the audience right on the subway. The seats in the audience even shake when the train crosses over tracks. David B. Marling’s continuous sound design is superb, constantly placing elements in various places, creating a total environment. Kathi O’Donohue’s lights are effective but slightly out of balance. The light over the audience is too bright and distracting while the back of the subway car is far too dark, especially when Lula stands on the seats.
The costumes have a modern feel and, for the most part, distance the production from 1964. The very narrow jacket lapels and especially narrow ties of 1964 are absent as are the spike heels and pointy shoes. The new passenger, wearing a hoodie, who comes in at the end seals the deal for modernity. But Lula’s underwear, to which we are treated numerous looks, screams 1962.
Dutchman” is a long form one-act and last less than an hour, but every moment is full, and while the play is almost 50 years old, it still makes for a riveting evening of challenging theatre.
Live preshow music is provided by an excellent alto saxophonist, Dennis Kaye. Matthew Pomerantz produced.
“Dutchman” performs Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8 PM through May 26. The Art Works Theater is located at 6569 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Seward), in Hollywood.
Tickets are $25 and $15 for students and seniors. For tickets and reservations call (323) 929-2699 or go to www.dutchmantheplay.com.