Entering Bricolage’s playing space these days you’ll find yourself thrust into a stark environment. A wall is streaked with graffiti, another is realistically tiled to look like a grimy New York City subway platform. They frame bleachers. Between them sits a primitive, stripped-bare implication of a subway car. In this deliberately crude place something raw happens. Swiftly too.
Witness Jesse Connor’s remarkable setting for Dutchman, LeRoi Jones 1964 theatrical provocation, taking place, said Jones, "in the flying underbelly of the city." The play dwells on racism and black consciousness, issues as much alive today as when this was written. Jones, later altering his name to Amiri Baraka, wrote this brutal, short play with sometimes complex and unrealistic language, bordering on poetry, although you may not be able to grasp the essential meaning in some significant words where they count the most.
Traveling on a subway, a young naïve, bourgeois black man named Clay gets involved in a flirtatious conversation with an off-balance, deliberately provocative white woman, Lula, who comes on to him, taunting him, teasing him, insulting him until eventually he lashes out at her. Meanwhile other passengers behave as if nothing is happening, despite Clay and Lula moving all over the public space, slamming their bodies this way and that and into each other, swearing, yelling, becoming violent.
Director Mark Clayton Southers gives this piece a relentless intensity. Like the rushing train underground, it surges toward its dark destination. He and Tami Dixon make the most of Lula, as she gyrates, lurches and slides, propelled both by the train and by her own unpredictability. And, when she speaks LeRoi Jones' sometimes fractured language, she justifies that by seeming to talk crazy. As long as Jonathan Berry as Clay seems fascinated, puzzled and intrigued by the tempting spectacle of such a creature, he perfectly conveys Clay’s vulnerable malleability. But then Clay erupts with compelling intensity into powerful and dangerous assertion, in a monologue wherein, so I’ve read, Jones wants to say many things about being a black American man, evidently the main reason for the play. Berry delivers all of that in a non-stop cadence more appropriate to a song than to bringing out the essence. He regularly drops the ends of lines, losing what, presumably, Jones most wants to say. Again and again Berry throws away what could be important words, leaving only the heat of anger.
Certainly Jones has multiple points to make including, via the other passengers, something about New Yorkers shielding their own vulnerability within tightly constricted personal space, as if indifference will protect them. Southers adds to the meaning, having all the passengers white.
Speaking of heat, by the way, Jones calls for this to take place while it is “steaming hot.” Southers does not have his cast portray that element, which could add fuel to the fiery things that transpire, even suggesting a territory deeper underground: hell.
The program book adds to the impressive sense of preparation and thought that went into this production. It suggests a transit schedule, perhaps even reminding you of our own, originally reflecting a system to serve all of the people all of the time. An issue, locally, which increasingly seems in doubt. There’s a contemporary relevance Jones could not have foreseen, even though the racism he evoked still stalks our streets.
Dutchman continues through May 12 at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave, Downtown 412/ 471-0999 www.bricolagepgh.org.
There are also post-performance conversations with community leaders and activists focusing on the play.