The stage floor’s sunk into the ground, covered in shadowy hues of blues and grays. It looks as though it were the depths of the sea floor. All around the stage, large jagged wooden planks jut up from the ground as if they were pieces of a ship that broke apart and sank. Wooden planks hang above the audience as if we were held captive in a ship’s hull. In the center of the stage is a large circular wooden pedestal etched with beautiful carvings all around its sides. A silky white curtain hangs from the theater’s ceiling and drapes the edges of the pedestal. It keeps hidden from the audience what stands on top of it. This ghostly atmosphere’s created by designer Teresa Williams and scenic artist Michaela Dougherty. A mist begins to roll onto the stage.
“I can’t wait to see what’s behind that curtain,” the woman sitting next to me excitedly says to her date.
The lights fade, and a near-realistic storm begins inside the theater, created by lighting designer Dalton Hamilton and sound designer Aaron Muhl. Then, one by one, members of the production’s ensemble move onto the stage – most playing various muted parts. In the beginning, they’re dressed all in white and look lost and confused. The storm builds.
What follows is a haunting dance choreographed by Alexander Jones that represents the dehumanizing journey of African men and women, torn from their homes and families in Africa, forcibly shipped into slavery, but lost at sea. The anguished-filled dance reaches its crescendo, the lights flash, the white curtain drops, and the audience bursts into roaring applause.
And what is revealed on the top of the pedestal? Two figures sitting in a subway car compartment. The scene on the pedestal is New York City in the 1960s. Thus begins American Stage’s production of Amiri Baraka/ Leroi Jones “Dutchman”, directed masterfully by Erica Sutherlin.
There is a captivating, otherworldly feeling about this play. The central figures are Lula, a young white female free-spirited hippie played by Shannon Mary Keegan, and Clay, played by Adebowale Adebiyi, a youthful, reserved, well-mannered Black man dressed in a conservative business suit. Both Keegan and Adebiyi play their character with great deft. What begins as a casual conversation between two strangers on a train is quickly revealed as a cold, calculating hunt, with Lula as the predator and Clay as her prey. Lula wants Clay to see her as an open free loving spirit, but her character is a sensual sociopathic viper. She even offers Clay an apple, as if to foreshadow the dark path Lula wants to lead Clay down.
While Clay remains centered and calm, Lula affects the audience on opening night. She stalks Clay with playful flirtation, then moves into aggressive sexual predatory behavior towards Clay, disturbing and dangerous. I feared for the character Clay. She encourages Clay to drop all his responsibilities and come party with her. At the same time, Lula drops insulting trigger words about Blacks, gays, and Jews, casually using violent language; audible sounds of shock and disgust come from the crowd reacting to the words. Lula pushes and prods Clay with her language, trying to provoke him towards rage.
“Let me be who I want to be!” exclaims Clay. Clay is fighting for his soul; Lula is determined to take it. These are intense, soul-wrenching scenes.
Interestingly, when “Dutchman” had its first production in the ’60s, the playwright was divorcing his wife. “Dutchman” is also the last play he wrote using his birth name Leroi Jones; he continued writing plays as Amiri Baraka, a man who wanted to reclaim his freedom and authentic identity.
Raw. Disturbing. Provocative. Watching this production, I could feel the personal pain the playwright needed to express with the words between Lula and Clay. The actors brought eerie depth to their characters. This production is a testament to the dedication towards storytelling from the creative team of American Stage. They brought St Petersburg a ghostly and captivating psychological thriller.