KNOW Theatre successfully tackles controversial drama

Reviewed by George Basler

Watching Dutchman is like having a scab ripped off a fresh wound.

The wound is race relations in the United States, and Dutchman is a bitter and disturbing play that offers emotional fireworks, but no comfort, about the issue.

The fireworks are on full display in the KNOW Theatre’s riveting production that opened this past weekend (Sept. 9-11) at the downtown Binghamton theater and will run for two more weekends.

Directed by Tim Gleason and starring Kymel Yard and Caitlin McNichol, both of whom give excellent performances, the play is an allegorical diatribe about the emotional damage that America inflicts on black men. The action focuses on an encounter between a young white woman, Lula, and a young African-American man, Clay, on a New York City subway train. Needless to say, their relationship does not end with the words, “they lived happily ever after.”

Dutchman was written by LeRoi Jones, who would soon change his name to Amiri Baraka. Filled with rage and pessimism, the play — which premiered off-Broadway in 1964 — was controversial then and remains controversial to this day.

Baraka, who died in 2014, was a controversial figure as well. First gaining prominence as a Beat-influenced poet, he transformed himself into a Black Nationalist leader of the Black Arts movement that focused on duplicating the aims of the Black Power political movement in fiction, poetry and drama. Throughout a stormy career, he was praised as an incisive commentator on race relations and condemned for his alleged anti-Semitism and fascination with violence and misogamy.

So be prepared: While Dutchman is a compelling piece of theater, it could make you feel uncomfortable, to say the least. The one-act, hour-long play is  incendiary and graphic.

But if you appreciate good acting, by all means, go to watch McNichol and Yard’s work together. Faced with  the difficult job of playing characters that are both individuals and metaphors for larger societal ills, they pull it off.

Lula, as played by McNichol, is a destructive temptress. Her portrayal is a fierce one as Lula both cajoles and taunts Clay while seeming to be both repelled and fascinated by his blackness.

McNichol, who is a veteran of many local theater productions, effectively plays the character’s wild mood swings while showing her rotten inner core. My only quibble is that the performance is a bit too manic at times. Then again Lula is as neurotic as a jailhouse bug, so manic fits.

The pleasant surprise is Yard’s portrayal of Clay. The program indicates that Dutchman marks his first professional theater performance. Previously he has been a vocalist and writer. But Yard commands the stage like a veteran.

In the first part of the play, he effectively conveys the character’s bemused, somewhat playful, attitude toward Lula. Then, in the second part, he makes the character’s sudden transition from passivity to incendiary rage totally believable even though, as written by Baraka, the mood shift is an abrupt one.

Yard’s long monologue near the play’s end, which can be seen as a howl of both anguish and anger, is gripping.

The KNOW Theatre production team also deserves credit. The set by Kat D’Andrea and Pat Morrissey and lights and sound by Joe Brofcak make you feel like you’re on a graffiti-riddled subway car.

Despite the strong acting and production, the play remains, at least for me, problematic. Baraka can write, not question about it. Much of the striking language in Dutchman plays like an extended jazz riff, or Beat poetry.

But the play is a bleak one, and its main premise is questionable. Baraka’s vision is that the white power structure is rotten to the core, and any attempt at assimilation is meaningless. Clay represents the professional, college-educated black man who is trying to fit into the larger world but is eventually destroyed for this effort.

Whether this is a perceptive critique, or ideological claptrap, is debatable. Moreover, the play is laced with misogamy. Lula is a sex-crazed animal (she calls herself a hyena), and, at one point Clay threatens to rip her “lousy breasts off.” The fact that Baraka was going through a divorce with his wife, a white woman, obviously didn’t help his mood when writing the drama.

Critics and audiences will probably be debating the worth of  Dutchman, and all of Baraka’s work, for years. Still there is no disputing the fact that Dutchman carries a visceral power. KNOW is starting off its season on a strong note.

IF YOU GO: Dutchman will be performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays,and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 25 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. A pay-what-you-can performance will be at 8 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 15). Talkbacks will follow the performances on Saturday (Sept. 17) and Sept. 25.

Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors,$15 for students). Visit www.knowtheatre.org, or call 724-4341.

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