Leo Rising Theatre Company doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter. Their newest production, the stylized one- act, Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) delves into the wickedness of racism and the ugliness of white supremacy culture in the soulless underbelly of New York City’s subway system, hurling toward destination unknown.
When Clay, a sharply dressed, well-educated young black man encounters Lula, an alluring though neurotic white woman on a subway train, he’s equal parts put off and intrigued. She immediately intrudes his personal space demanding his attention. She’s flirtatious and forward, taunting and seducing him, weaving a web of sexually charged fantasy. He’s naively attracted to her, or at least the idea of her. As Lula’s behavior becomes more erratic, her commentary becomes more overtly racist. She questions Clay’s personhood and proceeds to mock and degrade him. Clay deflects and Lula escalates her attack- almost to the point of insanity. As Clay struggles to maintain composure in the face of his fangs-bared oppressor, he’s afforded no support, no kindness or compassion by anyone on the train. Some even join in the pointed and racially motivated brutality as sport and all are complicit in his demise.
Director Bryan Keith narrows focus on the unraveling relationship between Clay and Lula, carefully peeling back the layers and tapping into both character’s underlying rage. His staging straightforward and clean. Keith has a solid understanding of the play’s constantly shifting dynamics and finds the play’s internal rhythm through the ebb and flow of the dialogue. Conversely, Keith does little to explore the effect the external environment has on the story.
Julian Austin finds an unassuming and naïve Clay. He’s inherently likable and sweet but he never fully gives in to the confusion and disorientation of the character experiences throughout the play. His final speech is explosive and charged. Jenn O’Brien’s Lula is coquettish and coy. She keeps the character’s actions close to the chest and seems apprehensive to wade into the sludge of the character’s reprehensible actions- but the uglier she is, the more intriguing she becomes. She leans into character’s erratic behavior but there’s more to be mined beneath the surface. The interaction by the train passengers is strangely generic; they have such blithe, desensitized reactions to verbal and physical violence that feels like a scene from The Twilight Zone. Klenn Harrigan makes a memorable 11th hour cameo as the Young Man.
Costume design by Kristine Wheeler is ambiguously contemporary and offers little by way of defining character, place or time. Well-placed intimacy and fight direction by Jen Albert. Lighting design by Ray Jones adds a much-needed sense of momentum. Warm, muted swaths of light constantly sweep through the scene as a reminder of a story-in-motion. Carter Dean’s sound design offers a sample of the potential that sound has in defining the play’s environment. That the underlying and ever-present sounds of a subway train are largely absent is a missed opportunity.
Dutchman premiered at The Cherry Lane Theatre in 1964, a tense time for race relations in America. There remains a timeless quality to the story; Lula’s racist tendencies bubble beneath the surface; the result of ingrained, institutionalized racism that builds into a brutal act of violence- with the compliance and assistance of the passersby. It’s vicious. It’s enraging. But Dutchman’s pointed, no holds barred commentary on the perils of being a black man in America is worth your time and attention.
Anthony Meindl Theater, 905 Cole Ave., Hollywood. Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. For tickets or more information please visit IG @leorisingtheatreco or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Running time: 1 hour with no intermission.
This production has been EXTENDED through August 21st, 2022.