The Column Online



Written by Amiri Baraka

The Classics Theatre Project

Directed by Dennis Raveneau
Assistant Director & Dramaturge – Kerry Goldman
Production Manager – Luisa Torres
Assistant Production Manager – Louis Shopen
Designs by Joey Folsom, Devon Rose, and Luisa Torres

Clay – Brentom Jackson
Lula – Rhonda Rose

Reviewed Performance: 11/11/2022

Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

This one-act play is set in and premiered in the year 1964, winning the off-Broadway Obie Award. Dutchman is an intense one-hour in a New York subway car. The drama’s escalation is well written and well performed in this Classics Theatre Project production.

A strait-laced Clay (Brentom Jackson) sits, reads a weighty-looking book, and tries to mind his own business. Clay wears a tie and a brown suit jacket, whereas Lula (Rhonda Rose) is only marginally dressed. From the beginning Lula squirms and itches for, well I don’t want to spoil it for you. Both characters are smart, quick-witted, and well-spoken. The similarities end there.

The bones of the subway carriage are created out of interconnected steel pipes, from which looped strap handholds dangle. The palette is steel grey and industrial tan, with seemingly random graffiti on worn subway seats providing occasional pops of neon. The graffiti portends what is to come: it is hard to discern any theme other than rage and chaos.

The character of Lula starts out over-the-top flirty, possibly charming. Because Rose hews to the truth of the character, the audience struggles to like Lula, even when the dialogue is seeded with the possibility (or not) of deep-seated sexual trauma. Ultimately Lula is a disconnect between external beauty and internal ugliness. To say the character is entitled is an understatement.

Lula appears to struggle with mental health, but then refers to her “own novel form of insanity,” confusing us with more self-knowledge than your typical crazy lady. One rare truth Lula tells us is that “I lie a lot.” While the audience ultimately learns why in more detail, her original explanation for this confession is that lying “helps me control the world.” This turns out to be truer than the audience initially realizes.

Dutchman is a thoroughly unique inverted mystery. For most of the hour, I kept wondering, what genre is this? Day-in-the-life in mid-twentieth century commuting? A romantic comedy? A tragic love story? How about a crime caper? Has someone escaped? Are men in white coats about to show up with double-barreled lithium shots? Could it be as simple as meds not being taken? Maybe this is a hard-core psychopath alleviating her ennui by testing random fellow travelers’ reactions? Or maybe none of this is happening? Perhaps one of these two people will catch their reflection, or lack thereof, in a window and the full existential onslaught will hit the audience in the proverbial face. This also would be an innovative car commercial--don’t ride the subway, just buy a car, man.

Jackson grabs the audience’s sympathy and never lets us go. He completely convinces as the character Clay initially tries to humor Lula. Jackson believingly delivers lines echoing what the audience is thinking.

Rose shows her acting chops in dialogue where Lula appears to be joking but we have a suspicion the character really believes it, for example in the exchange: Clay: “Did I say something wrong?” Lula: “Everything you say is wrong.” Later, a confused Clay says he had no idea they were talking about his “manhood” the whole time.

Lula keeps pushing buttons, cycling through alternating episodes of seduction and vile racist attacks (really vile). Clay looks down on this wreck of a person. He scornfully accuses Lula of “rolling your ass around.” Clay’s disgust initially focuses on the person who deliberately triggered it, then expands to white people generally. They completely misunderstand Bessie Smith. But the more Clay talks, the more his exclamations transition from adroit social commentary into murder fantasies.

A surprising theatrical device ultimately adds travelers to the subway car. It is gorgeously executed. Clay failed to take notice at first, and when he does, he knows that the stakes for him just went through the roof.

Once they eventually make an appearance, the fellow commuters are mostly engrossed with reading, but their devotion to ignoring Lula’s increasingly burlesque antics and the ultimately raucous scene between Clay and Lula emerges as another mystery. At first, they reminded me of that guy stuck in the elevator with a naked Sasha Baron Cohen at the mortgage brokers’ convention; you just know he was thinking, I’ll pretend not to see it until I can get out. But as things escalate, their lack of reaction becomes harder to understand.

Like Clay, the audience struggles to define what is actually happening and where this ride is ending. The sense of claustrophobic foreboding is palpable, as Clay is increasingly trapped. Incredibly, in the end, it all makes sense. The characters’ dialogue and actions hold together as a cogent cohesive. My daughter and I had emotional reactions consistent with the ending, but we did not foresee the ending.

Apples play the obvious symbolic role of Eve tempting Adam. The meaning of the title is up for debate. Due to the increasing claustrophobic dread, I find the Flying Dutchman most apt. According to that legend, ghosts are stuck for eternity on a sailing ship, much the same way that Clay is trapped in the subway car for the longest, most bizarre ride of his life. In addition, Lula at one point opines to Clay that, “the people accept you as a ghost of the future.”

Themes include racism, sexuality, psychopathy, public spaces, mob mentality, and breaking points. Are we all trapped by our own greatest weaknesses? Does it even matter whom a person is once robbed of their dignity and defenses? The play cleverly confronts some audience members with who they would be if a passenger.

The pre-performance period music is pleasantly piped throughout the cozy space and sound effects include the hum of mass transit and, briefly, the scream of brakes. The sound stops dramatically at flashpoints to emphasize and acknowledge a certain epithet. The lighting is aptly matched with the industrial malaise, and adroitly employs both spotlights and darkness.

Lula’s costume is a gorgeous emerald slip dress that shows a scintillating amount of leg, while Clay is somewhat formally dressed in a sedate brown. The costumes match the drama in that the two looks visually are quite different from the beginning.

The roles are demanding, even grueling, and the acting is superb. I also recommend the production for its impressive execution of a theatrical device that cannot be replicated in a movie. Also, the historic Margo Jones Theatre is one of those quirky Dallas things that lets us love living here. Thank goodness the City is preserving it. This intense production is a perfect fit for this charming landmark building. There is no bad seat in this backbox theater, and the chairs are comfortable. The period piece is stunningly original and its shifting manipulations of stereotypes and underlying themes make it relevant today.

The Classics Theatre Project
November 11 – 26, 2022 at 8 p.m.
Margo Jones Theatre Fair Park
1121 1st Ave, Dallas, TX 75210
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