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Racially-charged ‘Dutchman’ opens this week at American Stage

Bill DeYoung

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Click on the arrow above to watch the video conversation.

Opening Friday at American Stage, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman is a two-character allegory about race in America. Provocative and incendiary, it was written in the early 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and director Erica Sutherlin finds it unsettling that, on the whole, not much has changed in the 58 years since it premiered.

The one-act play is set inside a New York subway car. A Black man and a white woman engage in a dynamic and wide-ranging conversation.

“The two main characters, Lula the white woman, and Clay the Black man, they are individuals, but they are also both ideologies,” Sutherlin explained in a video interview with the Catalyst. “Lula represents whiteness, and Clay represents blackness. And how they engage with one another. And how we use tactics, and deal with obstacles, when it comes to race. When it comes to existing with one another.”

Adebowalé Adebiyi (Clay).

When it was announced as part of the 2021-22 American Stage season, there was some concern in the company – and in the community – that the racially-charged Dutchman might be too ‘on the nose’ and make people uncomfortable.

“But here’s the thing about art that I love,” Sutherlin said. “That’s the intention and the purpose. And yes, there’s some art that’s created for pure enjoyment. And I love that art too. Because sometimes you want to go in, turn it off, take the joyride.

Shannon Mary Keegan (Lula).

“And then there’s this other part of art that is supposed to poke us. That is supposed to push us. That is supposed to force us to question our own doing.”

Ultimately, she believes, holding a mirror to the audience can “call us to the table, so that we can all evolve into better selves, people and community.”

A veteran writer and director with credits in theater, television and film, Sutherlin joined the American Stage team in March, as the theater’s first Director of Community Engagement.

Part of her mission was to prepare Tampa Bay for the arrival of Dutchman. To that end, she created a series of public discussions at various St. Pete locations: Through the Lens: Amiri Baraka, the Man Behind the Words; Forbidden Fruit: An Exploration of Themes in Dutchman; The Gorilla, the Ape, the Super-Predator: Black Men in America.

Once the play opens, there will be talkbacks after five select performances.

In the script, she says, “I can see the work, I can see the struggle, I can see the questions of him trying to figure out identity, and how do we identify … and when I say we, how does Black America, or Black males, identify in America? How do we exist in the world of whiteness? When we’re looking at whiteness and blackness.

“I don’t know if Amiri was trying to teach us anything. It’s nothing that we need to learn. We already know what this thing is. We already know and understand the divisive-ness of race, and racially-charged energy. We know that.

“I think more importantly, it’s about ‘What are we doing? What are you going to do, personally? How do you show up every day?’”

Dutchman, running July 1-31 is presented in preview performances Wednesday and Thursday.

Find all tickets here.

 

 

 

 

 

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