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May 16, 2014
Review: Dutchman
"Dutchman".  Photo Credit: Christine Jean Chambers.
Ambien Mitchell and Sharif Atkins in "Dutchman". Photo Credit: Christine Jean Chambers.

Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre and The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 50th Anniversary production of “Dutchman” is a compelling contemporary portrayal of one of Amiri Baraka’s most powerful, yet controversial pieces of literature. In this intricate work written over 50 years ago, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) manages to weave together a timeless context, conversation, and introspective analysis on black and white race relations, the side effects of having to constantly operate out of double-consciousness, and the residue that accompanies white skin privilege and explores the consequences of what could possibly happen when those who are consistently marginalized on either side of the spectrum begin to implode.

“Dutchman” is set in the flying underbelly of the city; two strangers, Clay (Sharif Atkins), a well-suited, college-educated black man, and Lula (Ambien Mitchell), a seductive and seemingly neurotic white woman, connect on the subway.  What unravels next takes us on a journey that explores the psyche of a black man who appears oppressed on the surface, but who is actually aware; the psychotic behavior that accompanies the habitual ability to literally get away with murder, exemplified through Lula; and how the continuum of institutionalized racism is the real culprit to the repetitious clashes that continue to occur within a society.

Lula, played with great freedom and flexibility by Ambien Mitchell, eventually commits an unjustifiable crime against Clay, and knows that she will get away with it as it has been done so many times before. Sharif Atkins gives a dynamite performance as the unassuming Clay, who shows great range in his ability to be at times composed and in other moments explosive to the point of becoming literally drenched in sweat.  After brushing off Lula’s statements about his obvious oppression of self like, “I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger” and “you liver-lipped white man”, the well-suited Clay begins to change; at one point, he boldly declares, “I sit here in this buttoned up suit to keep from cutting all of your throats.” The exchange throughout the play is riveting and given with great vulnerability and candor.  In the end, there is a ritualistic wiping of hands with white napkins that could quite possibly be symbolic of those in power being able to dispose of life, wipe themselves clean of the incident, and move on to the next endeavor.

Under the direction of Carl Cofield, this revival of “Dutchman” presents a beautiful political allegory on race relations. From the props (a red apple, red lipstick, a napkin and litter thrown below the subway) to the well-manicured suit and tightly-laced shoes of Clay under the wonderful costume design of Rachel Dozier-Ezell, this work brings truth and reality to the stage.  The lighting design of Alan C. Edwards alongside the sound design of Eric Sluyter are meticulously executed throughout the production.  In the wake of the world’s current events, the National Black Theatre’s revival of “Dutchman” is a definite must-see.

Through May 23 at the National Black Theatre.

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Written by: Lynnette Nicholas
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