The play Dutchman first exploded in New York City in March 1964. A disarmingly simple story about two strangers on a subway train, it was integral in introducing a newly aggressive black consciousness into the arts. And its subject—racial hatred, cruelty and violence—felt like an assault to most of America, which had read of racial turmoil in the South and glimpsed images of it on TV but had never seen it played out onscreen or onstage.
Over the years, this one-acter by LeRoi Jones (known for decades since as Amiri Baraka) has been mostly relegated to historical curio; it's in all the major modern drama anthologies, but it's rarely produced—especially in Southern California. After the '60s, Rodney King, Chris Rock and Boyz N the Hood, dropping the N-bomb on a stage, or having a black man articulate the rage and frustration of an entire race, isn't that shocking.
Garage Theatre's production is the first time Dutchman has ever been staged in Long Beach—but it's not shocking either. Notwithstanding director Matt Anderson's attempt to contemporize the play by including '90s subway car graffiti, and by placing the audience in the car with the actors, Dutchman feels stuck in the past. Referencing Jewish poets in Yonkers and dropping Averell Harriman's name make no sense to anyone born after World War II, and the thought of a white woman seducing a black man for nefarious purposes just doesn't pack the shocking dramatic freight that it did in 1964.
But even though this production suggests Dutchman's inherent dramatic tension hasn't aged that gracefully, it emphatically shows that its main concern—the dread persistence of American racism—remains keenly relevant, and that Baraka's language, inspired by the Beats and diffused through a rhythmically urban African-American perspective, still holds up amazingly well thanks to strong performances courtesy of Kenny McClain, as the book-smart young black Clay, and Amy-Louise Sebelius, as the trash-talking white seducer Lula. Both actors make the play feel piercingly real, even if it doesn't always resonate.
Sebelius imbues her character with a raw, teasing sexuality, wanting to devour Clay as much as she enjoys tweaking his middle-class sensibilities with her vulgarities and admonishments. She dominates this play, which is important because even though she has the juiciest lines and drives the action, this is actually Clay's play, something the audience isn't supposed to get until late in this twisted game. McClain adeptly keeps his secret hidden until forced to draw himself out.
It's a well-done production of a problematic play, one that will probably remain under the collective radar of the American theater, even though the questions it forces are as compelling today as they were 42 years ago.
DUTCHMAN AT GARAGE THEATRE, 251 E. SEVENTH ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 433-8337; THEGARAGETHEATRE.ORG. THURS.-SAT., 8 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 18. $15-$20.
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