One of My Favorites
First off: I love The Dutchman. The Sunstone Studios production that’s running right now might be one of. the best dramas I’ve seen in the past few years. I’m biased. I love the play. And as it turns out I’ve never actually seen a production of it. And...I haven’t really thought about it for over a quarter century. So...y'know...that's weird. That and a few other things didn't make it into my upcoming Shepherd-Express review of the show.
A Partial Explanation
I didn’t realize that Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman was one of my favorites. It is. I remember that now. Even though I really haven’t thought about it much since I first read it in 1995. I didn’t know that when I went in to see it. I only remember knowing it as being one of the best stage dramas to come out of the 20th century. And though I’ve seen over 1000 plays in the past couple of decades, I’ve never seen THIS one.
Somewhere into the first quarter hour of the production, it occurred to me that I was INCREDIBLY familiar with the script: a train. A white woman. A black man. A knife. And so much of the dialogue and so many of the beatrs seem like I'd seen them a million times before. But I’d never seen it before. So where did I run into it? High school. 20th Century American Literature class. There was a substitute teacher. We read it aloud in class. I loved it. It was something that I’d always wanted to see performed. And then...I’d forgotten about it. I’d always remembered it as a great drama and then...having accepted that, never had to think about it again. Weird how the mind works.
You try to be present for the performance. You try to immerse yourself in the world of the play. Everyone brings their own reality into the theatre, though. There are distractions in any performance: I now have no day job after 11.5 years in the same office. Next week I’m going to have surgery on my left eye. But man...Denzel Taylor and Hannah Ripp-Dieter did a tremendous amount of character work developing a remarkably nuanced performance. But again: there are always distraction. Taylor and Ripp-Dieter were great, though.
I know Dutchman takes place in a New York City subway in the mid-1960s. On the walk in to the Sunstone, there’s an old New York tabloid format newspaper. I wasn’t even thinking about it until someone walked onto the stage’s abstract, little subway car and started reading it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was noticing a slight yellowing of the pages. And then I noticed the font and the kerning of the text and I knew it wasn’t from the 1960s. It was more recent issue than that. But it wasn't current.
I love the intimacy of the Sunstone. The way that Director DiMonte Henning has the stage set-up...the audience can get close enough to the action to notice the font on the paper being read by someone in the periphery of the action....I mean...WOW...(I really like that sort of thing.) Anyway...while Taylor and. Ripp-Dieter are winding their way through a very complex and captivating conversation between two strangers, my eye gets pulled to the page being read: there’s a column regarding the American theater on the page of that paper. In the upper-left corner of the page is an ad for the movie A Dry, White Season. And I’m thinking...”that was...what...late ‘80s? Early ‘90s?" Then I notice an ad for the Batman movie at the bottom of the page...so it’s...1989. She’s reading a New York City newspaper from late September of 1989. Batman was a big enough film in 1989 that it was released in late June and still playing in late September, so the add was kind of minimal, but very distinct. And again: Taylor and Ripp-Deiter are phenomenal in this play, but I love catching little details like that. Here’s this paper that was published in 1989 with over a million other copies. It was likely read by someone. All of the rest of them get thrown away or recycled as fish wrap or whatever. But not this one. This one made its way to Milwaukee and just...hung around in storage somewhere for a few decades. Now it’s onstage downtown Milwaukee playing a New York City newspaper from the 1960s.
For me, Opening Night of Sunstone’s Dutchman was a three-hour commute. Unless I’m there with my wife, I’m bussing it downtown. It’s n hour on the 80 there. It’s an hour on the 80 back. The show itself is an hour. Three hours on public transit, but only two hours of that time were actually spent going anywhere physically. But I mean...Henning and company do a remarkably good job of locking-in the feeling of a subway car for the sake of the performance. I had a very immersive experience with the evening.
It’s weird...I remember being in high school and being attracted to the female lead in the script. Ignore the disgusting racism, the knife and the homicidally sociopathic personality and...this woman is exactly who I would have been attracted to back then. And then I make it into college and I’m meeting all kinds of women like this...poetic and abstract and intellectual. It’s always really interesting until you see the knife. You see the knife and you just know there’s a sociopathic thing going on there...
The intimacy of the Sunstone really amplifies that poetic interaction between two strangers that could be something more. And it turns into something more...but not the way you want it to. It could be a romance, but there’s a knife. And on some level in encounters like this...on some level it just feels like there’s always a knife.
So anyway. LOVED this show. See this show. It’s...phenomenal. But I’m biased. Because it’s the type of show I’d always wanted to see since I first read it in high school.
Sunstone Studios’ production of Dutchman runs through Nov. 19 at Sunstone’s space on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Sunstone online. My concise review of the show is coming soon to The Shepherd-Express.