Chicago Theatre Review
‘Dutchman/TRANSit’ a Riveting, Urgent Theatrical Experience
Dutchman/TRANSit – American Blues Theatre
In a 1964 interview with Judy Stone of The San Francisco Chronicle, Amiri Baraka – then an up-and-coming poet and playwright still using his original name of LeRoi Jones – detailed his growth as an artist and intellectual, and he pinpointed two institutions that helped him formulate his thinking: Howard University and the Air Force. While Howard taught him the “Negro sickness,” which he defined as teaching African Americans “how to be white,” the Air Force taught him the far more formidable “white sickness,” which shocked him “into realizing what was happening to me and to others.”
“By oppressing Negroes,” he continued, “the whites have become oppressors, twisted in the sense of doing bad things to people and finally justifying them, convincing themselves they are right – as people have always convinced themselves.”
That duality of sickness courses through Baraka’s remarkable one-act play “Dutchman,” which is receiving a much-vital staging by American Blues Theater, albeit with a thoroughly modern twist. Paired with “Dutchman” is the world-premiere “TRANSit,” a one-act play from Darren Canady that rockets much of Baraka’s themes and concerns into the 21st century – and with similarly riveting results.
The setup for “Dutchman” is a remarkably simple one. It’s the early ’60s, and Clay (Michael Pogue), a twentysomething Black professional from New Jersey, is riding the New York subway to join some friends at a party. En route, he is dutchjoined in his subway car by Lula (Amanda Drinkall), a deeply mysterious (and deeply erratic) white woman who takes an immediate liking to Clay.
Consuming apples in a highly sexual, allegorical fashion, Lula comes on strong to Clay as she alternates between telling seductive fortunes and making bold physical advances. Initially shy and polite to her efforts, Clay eventually warms to Lula’s flirting, though his jouissance is short lived – after her seduction abruptly turns to crude racial insults and mockery, Clay responds in kind, aggressively calling out Lulu’s (and really, white America’s) ignorance on Black culture and expressing profound resentment towards the country’s appropriation, manipulation, and callous manhandling of his people….and doing so to his own detriment. “They say, ‘I love Bessie Smith,’” Pogue’s Clay bellows, standing in the middle of the stage – a wonderful creation by Sarah E. Ross that uncannily captures an old New York subway car. “And [they] don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass; kiss my Black unruly ass.’”
There are many, many layers to “Dutchman.” Indeed, for a one-act play, it has inspired considerable analysis and discussion since its March 24, 1964 premiere. One of the most thought provoking came from Courtney Deal in Magnificat, a journal of undergraduate nonfiction from Marymount University. Quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote in The Souls of Black Folk how “One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,” Deal details how Clay embodies that dichotomy. While one side of him wears the suit and tie to appease the white ruling class, the other is his “true Black soul,” the kind who explains to Lulu that “I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit, to keep myself form cutting all your throats. I mean wantonly. You great liberated whore! You fuck some Black man, and right away you’re an expert on Black people. What a lotta shit that is.”
“Dutchman” is highly metaphorical – from Adam and Eve metaphors to elongated, deeply unrealistic speeches and flourishes – and it’s a grand testament to director Chuck Smith and his performers that the material never becomes pretentious or overbearing. As Lulu, Drinkall is equal parts temptress and hysterical lover, with none of the country sweetness she brought to “Last Train to Nibroc” or the distant chill of Strawdog’s “Great Expectation.” The real star of the show, though, is Pogue, a consistent performer at Court Theatre and other companies. Eloquent, passionate, and focused as hell, Pogue perfectly captures Du Bois’ duality and Baraka’s sickness, producing a character who remains just as relevant in 2016 as he was in 1964.
“Dutchman” is in itself a loaded, multifaceted play, one that can stand on its own merits; yet, Greenhouse has only added to the complexities with the aforementioned “TRANSit,” which was specifically written as a contemporary “response” to Baraka’s text.
Set in modern New York and in a more modern subway car, “TRANSit” concerns three characters: Veronica (Manny Buckley), an African American transgender woman with a sharp tongue and sharper judgements; Jake Szczepaniak (Luke), Veronica’s out-and-proud friend who nonetheless has his own gender and racial blindspots; and Lalo (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a dancer and altogether charmer with little preparation for what he is bound to encounter. The plot moves in a similar fashion to “Dutchman” – awkward interactions turn to playfulness, which evolves into seduction, which escalates to violence – but while “Dutchman” is clearly a play of Malcolm X and the early ‘60s, “TRANSit” is just as boldly a play of 21st century messiness, one that not so much confronts the issues of gender, sexuality, and race relations, but rather, throws them all in a boiling pot and splashes the resulting stew along the walls.
As a world-premiere work, it could use some tightening in spots (some of Lalo’s segments wander, and deprive the dutchshow of Canady’s singing repartee), but the show’s urgency ultimately wins out in the end. “I was trying to locate something that made me as angry and frustrated with American society as Baraka was in 1964,” Canady said in an interview with Greenhouse Assistant Producer Elyse Dolan. “It became very clear to me that the sustained silence around violence against transgender women of color was troubling me at a down-in-my-soul level.”
And through Veronica, Canady has written a brilliant vessel for that anger and frustration. Quick-witted but harsh, warm but sardonic, passionate but desperate, Veronica is a myriad of emotions and reactions (my personal favorite being when she disregards one of Luke’s half-hearted comments of racial equality as that of a “Rachel Dolezal mixtape”), and with an actor of Buckley’s talents, Director Lisa Portes brings Veronica to life in marvelous fashion. Buckley has been outstanding in previous shows – for instance, as a kind-hearted butler in “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” or as the legendary Virgil Tibbs in a stage production of “In the Heat of the Night” – but “TRANSit” might represents his boldest work yet on a Chicago stage, and it could not come in service of a more important topic at a more urgent time.
In a 2011 discussion, Baraka explained that Clay’s fate is the result of his trying to go it alone, trying to challenge the systems of power all by his lonesome self. Canady’s work shows us that while the systems of power remain the same, its victims have only increased, and Greenhouse’s production brings those issues to the stage in glorious fashion.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Sept. 25 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to http://www.greenhousetheater.org/.
Additional information about this and other fine Chicagoland productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com