Tales from the underground
Dutchman and Petra
Sacramento, CA 95819
Celebration Arts’ wicked good production of Dutchman, a sensation in 1964, couldn’t possibly be more timely, coming as it does on the heels of a “misunderstanding” that put an internationally known African-American professor in handcuffs on his own front porch.
Amiri Baraka (who wrote as LeRoi Jones in the early ’60s) puts a well-educated, aspiring middle-class black man on New York’s subway, adds a volatile white woman, and shows his audience the emotional and physical violence possible. The title is drawn from the story of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship doomed to wander until its captain finds true love. As the short play reveals the thin veneer of acceptance that seems to be offered to a black man in a business suit who carries a briefcase, Dutchman’s ever-moving subway becomes a courtroom in which to indict the bystanders, black and white, who are complicit in his destruction.
The young black man, Clay (played to perfection by Jason Oler in his Celebration Arts debut), seems sure of himself and his standing as Lula (in a manic turn by Kristine David) begins her attempts at seduction. But as her underlying purpose—to demean his success and abase his person—becomes more obvious, his underlying rage begins to surface. If oppression breeds resentment, as we know it does, Clay is its embodiment. That it is his essence, his very manhood, which is being attacked makes Lula’s perverse pleasure in his destruction all the more wretched.
Under Vada Russell’s able direction, Dutchman is both dark and daunting. Ole and David pull the most from Baraka’s poetic language, while they move with a physical abandon that increases both their chemistry and the tension.
Ron Dumonchelle’s simple but functional subway set provides ample room for the action and evokes a simpler time at odds with the reality of the conflict, letting us see that no vision of the past is as clear as it might seem. The hint of dinginess and institutional neglect also provides the perfect space for the opening play, an original work by Celebration Arts’ artistic director Wheatley titled Petra.
Petra is a short and melodic one-man piece that features what appears to be a stereotypical homeless character sleeping on the subway (the role will be shared by Wheatley and Rob Anthony, who acted in the reviewed performance). As he awakens to the morning, he tells—in the raucous, rambling way of the just barely mad man—the story of his “opera,” a bit of magical realism about a girl he wishes had been his daughter who is able to make an escape from the city’s underground. It is a bit of hope and poetry to precede the destruction of both that follows it in Dutchman.
The two shows are performed seamlessly and without intermission, so that an evening of theater becomes an uninterrupted window into what lies beneath the metropolis. We can only hope that, eventually, the Dutchman’s captain will find love, leaving peace among those of us who drift in his wake.