Monday, May 7, 2012

Sex and Race Fuel LeRoi Jones' Dutchman

DeForrest Taylor and Iva Stelmak star in Dutchman

On the surface what is going on in LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman is nothing more than a psychotic white woman seducing a naïve Black man.

But, upon deeper reflection, there is something much more sinister going on. Jones, who wrote this overly-dramatic, but incredibly volatile one-act, speaks to the tension that exists between the races. What better two devices to use than a black man and a blonde, white woman, who has long been a symbol of forbidden fruit for black men?

Dutchman, which would be the last show Jones wrote before changing his name to Amiri Baraka, explores the notion of a young white woman serving up her sexuality on a platter to a young black man who in the beginning resists, only to eventually give in to his lustful desires.  That alone offers up several metaphors.

DeForrest Taylor and Iva Stelmak

 The show, which won the Obie Award for best off-Broadway play, was first presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City in March 1964.

The story evokes an obvious comparison to Adam and Eve, especially with the female character’s obvious obsession with apples that she occasionally pulls out of her bag.

The entire show takes place on a New York subway.  A chance encounter and an innocent glance prove to be the beginning of what would become a life-altering event.

In this case, DeForrest Taylor plays a black businessman named Clay, to Iva Stelmak’s seductive Lula. Both have pre-conceived notions about the other. Their conversation escalates as the train roars into and out of stations along its route. Immediately upon entering the train Lula begins her dangerous seduction through extroverted behavior that borders on psychotic. She begins to dissect Clay, which eventually knocks him off his buttoned-down perch. It’s not long before Clay and Lula find themselves in an explosive verbal battle.

DeForrest Taylor is Clay and Iva Stelmak is Lula in Dutchman

At times it’s clear that the subway train is empty. Other times director April Daisy White uses the audience as passengers and sometimes the actors refer or seemingly look at other passengers who’ve boarded.

This is not an easy show for any actor to deliver effectively, especially a neophyte. It’s slow and tedious and builds momentum at a steady pace.

This is an emotionally charged piece that screams about anti-racist sentiments, societal expectations and stereotypes.

In a subtle way Jones is deliciously calling white people to task for their racist narrow mindedness and delivers it through a white woman, who ironically was considered off limits to black men for decades.

LeRoi Jones' Dutchman is at Artworks Theater

The way the actors move, simulating the motion of a subway car, adds visual authenticity. However, there is a disconnect with Taylor and Stelmak. Stelmak’s lines are rushed – even though what she’s saying is pivotal to the story. Lula comes off more as annoying than as a scheming, flirting seductress.

White’s direction pushes the story forward. She makes great use of the small stage. Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting, David Marling’s sound design and Burris Jackes’ set design are all impressive and effectively breathe life into the show.

Dutchman, written by LeRoi Jones and directed by April Daisy White, stars DeForrest Taylor and Iva Stelmak. It’s produced by Matthew Pomerantz.

On the Donloe Scale, D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Dutchman gets a L (likable).

Dutchman, Artworks Theater, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA  90038, Thur.-Sat. 8 p.m., through May 26; $14-$20; 323 929-2699.

Photo credit: Matthew Pomerantz.

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