‘Dutchman’—When art and reality converge

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The more things change the more they stay the same, such is the case with America’s fixation with race and is the reason why a play written in 1964 still packs a wallop almost 40 years later. If there was ever an illusion of a post-racial America, Leroi (now known as Amiri Baraka) Jones’ “Dutchman” serves a time continuum to keep us honest: assimilation, even if it is a Black family living in a White House, will not render race moot.

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JONATHAN BERRY and TAMI DIXON

For this particular trip back in time, the journey begins as soon as you purchase your ticket in Bricolage’s lobby and you traverse toward the performance space. The play’s program bears a deliberate resemblance to a transit schedule. The concession stand has vintage candy at old-school prices (yes, Sugar Daddy pops!). Then behind a curtain the set—kudos to set designer Jesse Connor for the frightening accuracy in recreating an appallingly disgusting underground subway scene—the only thing missing was dried puke, discarded used chewing gum and the smell of stale urine; the one-act play takes on the seats in a train car; period costumes by Kennedy Guess conjure up the beehives and Brylcreem.

Among the anonymous riders is Clay, a pre-buppie who resembles Bill Cosby in the old “I Spy” series in a crisp business suit and tie, when he looks up; he returns to his reading as the train continues on its way. Feeling under scrutiny, he looks up again to the same woman now in front of him, a blonde biting an apple while eyeing him with laser-focus.

“Dutchman” is a post-modern parable played out in the height of the Civil Rights struggle that also marked the dawn of more militant heirs of the Harlem Renaissance: the Black arts movement and pan-Africanism, and Jones/Baraka was the embodiment and vessel of all that promise. His script flipped the pretense of a kumbayaa paradigm and instead insisted that we might not all get along.

As Clay, Jonathan Berry tried to do just that, playing it cool under the pathological prosecution of the bat-s… crazy Lula, played by Tami Dixon; she pulls out all the stops so effectively that one becomes convinced that no amount of medication could ever make Lula right. Just as the train careens and screeches through the subway (lighting and sound design courtesy of Jeffrey Small and Dave Bjornson), Clay and Lula’s interaction because more frenetic as it churns towards a screaming crescendo of confrontation as Clay discards decorum in a therapeutic tirade of righteous indignation and Lula, let’s just say she doesn’t take it well.

Director Mark Clayton Southers makes a few adjustments to the original play to raise eyebrows even higher and to stimulate the post-performance dialog on the most avoided discussion that needs to take place: an honest conversation on the current state of race relations.

On opening night, most of the audience (an intimate house of approximately 60 seats) stayed for a talk-back on the topic of “The New Jim Crow” moderated by attorney Martha Conley. It was safe, thoughtful and at times brave. As a whole, this co-production with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture achieves what all art strives to do: promote and stimulate thought, observation and action. And if we can’t all get along, we can at least try to understand.

(Dutchman by Leroi Jones continues through May 12 at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave. in the Cultural District, Downtown. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 at the door Thursday and Sunday, $22/$25 Friday and Saturday; http://www.bricolagephg.org, http://www.brownpapertickets.com or 412-471-0999.)

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