Review: The Seeing Place's "Dutchman" Takes Flight


Written by Amiri Baraka

Directed by Brandon Walker

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater via Zoom

July 18-19, 2020

Timothy Ware and Erin Cronican. Photo courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
With The Seeing Place Theater's "Unplugged Reading" of Amiri Baraka's 1964 Dutchman (written and published as LeRoi Jones), the company continues its season focused on body politic, which began with George Orwell's Animal Farm earlier this year (you can read our review of the production here), in the virtual realm and with another play whose continued timeliness underscores the persistence of institutionalized modes of oppression and the need for fundamental systemic change. The Seeing Place's reading of Baraka's scathing work about an encounter in a New York City subway car between a white woman and a Black man premiered on the same day that civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis died and even his colleagues' tributes unintentionally highlighted the pervasiveness of racism in America as well as the continued urgency of the kinds of conversations that productions such as Dutchman can foster. All proceeds from tickets to Dutchman benefit the Black Theatre Network, which is "dedicated to the exploration and preservation of the theatrical visions of the African diaspora," and The Seeing Place will also be holding a virtual panel on race in America later in the month, for which Dutchman audience members will receive an email notification (additional donations can also be made here to the Seeing Place itself).

Dutchman, whose title alludes both to the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman and to the slave ships of the Dutch, focuses on what happens between Lula (Erin Cronican) and Clay (Timothy Ware) during a chance encounter on the subway (director Brandon Walker serves as narrator, and he and Eugene Barry-Hill play a young man and the conductor, respectively, in those characters' brief appearances). Lula, who asserts that Clay was staring at her "flesh," gets on to the car that he is riding in, sits down across from him, and strikes up (or, perhaps seen another way, imposes upon Clay) a mercurial conversation that is inflected by her open and early identification of herself as a fabulist, saying that she lies "to control the world." The apples that she eats, and gives to Clay as well, casts her as in part a temptress in the tradition that blames Eve for bringing death into the world, and, indeed, interactions like Lula instructing Clay to ask her to accompany him to the party to which he is headed turns to something more dangerous. Without saying too much for those unfamiliar with the play, one might say that Lula, when challenged, ultimately reasserts the power of what we would today call her privilege, her ability to make the world reflect her own view of it, and the play hints that this is part of a cycle of repetition (in which, of course, the individual stands in for the social).
Timothy Ware and Erin Cronican. Photo courtesy The Seeing Place Theater
Aligning with that suggestion, a few details such as the Zoom background of a contemporary subway car background and Lula taking out her earbuds after she engages Clay bring the play into our present moment. Another detail, that Lula is reading a paperback copy of Albert Camus' The Stranger, prompts consideration of thematic parallels between that work and the one that we are watching (again, to say more would be unfair to those experiencing Baraka's play for the first time, but such parallels definitely exist). The cutting between the Zoom windows is smoothly done, and because the play mostly consists of a two-person conversation, the format adds the interesting effect of putting the audience subjectively in the positions of both Lula and Clay as it continuously alternates perspectives. Both Ware and Cronican are excellent: we can see Clay's initial polite reticence slowly give way to relaxation and even flirtatiousness, and Ware's performance of Clay's monologue once he decides to furnish Lula with the unvarnished truth as he sees it is a standout moment. Cronican inhabits Lula with a confidence and forwardness that, for most of the play anyway, doesn't tip into overbearing—you can see why Clay keeps talking to her—giving events a groundedness that increases their impact. A talkback follows each reading, and the actors gave generously of their time in a stimulating question and answer session that addressed issues including the danger of complicity and complacency for allies in the struggle for racial justice, assimilation as/and survival, the challenges of the virtual format, and taking real action as an ally. It was clear throughout that the performance provoked strong reactions in the audience, a testament to the work of these artists and the continued power of Baraka's play.

Dutchman has a very limited virtual run, so don't miss your chance to see it and to benefit a worthy cause while The Seeing Place helps us to think about not only what and how we see but what we are going to do about it.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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