By Sheryl Aronson
For three consecutive Wednesdays, July 15th, July 22nd and July 29th, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman played at the Edgemar Theater in Santa Monica featuring Tanna Frederick and Siaka Massaquoi, directed by Levy Lee Simon. I was asked to monitor a discussion after each performance with the cast and director.
Each consecutive Wednesday a guest joined the panel contributing their diverse expertise. During week one the actor, Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed) attended, during week two Dr. Lisbeth Gant-Britton, author and professor of African American Studies shared her knowledge, and lastly Phil Doran, Emmy nominated television writer/producer of “All In the Family” sat on the panel.
Every performance got a standing ovation, every performance radiated the acting proficiency of Ms. Frederick and Mr. Massaquoi under the astute tutelage of Director Levy Lee Simon and every performance gripped the audience’s emotions and stirred up stimulating dialogue in the after-panel discussions.
Dutchman was written in 1964, but Baraka was not only commenting on racism in the Revolutionary times of the 60’s, his play still emanates relevance to today’s society. It acknowledges man’s timeless struggle of fear and hatred for what is unknown or different; as well as pursuing the dilemma of how much emotional weight an individual carries so they can fit in, not show hurt, pain and anger. Simon commented, “I look at Dutchman as a work of art, a classic play first… that’s how I directed it. As one approaches any classic piece like Shakespeare, Ibsen or Tennessee William, no one talks about how are you updating a play. This is a revival of Dutchman and how it resonates with an audience today will determine its significance.”
Tanna Frederick, who plays Lula, the viper striking woman who seduces unsuspecting Clay and strips away his sweet, innocent persona, talked about how her character represented a desperate woman beginning to age, “Lula is in control. She’s a black widow and a python demanding Clay let go of his buttoned up middle class nice man demeanor. I think Amari Baraka was in tune with women even though people say he’s anti women. Lula says profound statements and it’s very important for her character that Clay stands up for himself because she isn’t able to anymore.”
Siaka Massaquoi played the character of Clay, who’s a metaphor for black men trying to assimilate into a white society by keeping his emotions under control. Siaka informed the audience how he approached this iconic role in order to give Clay a universal feel yet put his unique spin on the character. “Clay wants that dream of The Declaration of Independence and he tries to live that on a day to day basis. He always feels it can be better tomorrow. Lula breaks down everything he built up and now his life is falling down with no foundation under him. I play him with innocence, not naivety, he believes everyone is good but Lula doesn’t allow him to keep living that illusion.”
Two people on a subway riding to exitensential oblivion…both doomed, both victims of society…the woman the seductor, tempting the man to sin with her to join her in the game of baring one’s soul, yet she must be in control, she determines the game. Every move Clay makes she maneuvers him again and again until he has nowhere else to go but to his murderous rage and she still doesn’t blink an eye when he rails at her. In the end he is murdered for standing up for himself, for taking a stand and then the whole a pattern begins again and Baraka brilliantly reminds all of us …racism and hatred is a never ending cycle of man.
As Clay tells Lula at the beginning of the play, “I’m prepared for anything.” that was the approach the after the performance panel exhibited at the end of each show. When I asked Lee, the Director, if he had any input into how the discussions might be structured, he replied, “Let’s just see what happens.”
I was curious to see if theater could not only entertain and be thought provoking, but could a conversation afterwards promote any kind of change in people’s lives. Would we be able to educate ourselves through the vehicle of theater to be mindful of our insecurities, our fears, our divinity, our power, our hate, our love, our darkness and our light and talk about what got stirred up internally?
Carl Weathers congratulated the actors as he was quite taken with their performances plus Lee’s tight direction. “Tanna devoured this thing.” Looking directly at her he said, “I don’t know if I would have had the balls you displayed to open yourself in such a raw way. The amount of energy to maintain your emotional depth is outstanding. You did this with such tenacity and it helped elevate the play to a place I hadn’t gotten before. “
He was also impressed that Siaka played Clay as innocent and not someone who was naive. This aspect of Clay intrigued the actor. “I would have played him naive but I can see how being innocent makes him more pure and how disturbing it is to see Lula rip away his innocence.”
As the audience shared their perceptions about men showing anger, one woman talked about the double standard for the boss who is black. “When the white boss gets angry at someone people say, he’s having a bad day but when the black boss goes off, people are afraid of his anger and he goes to Human Resources.”
On the second showing of Dutchman, Dr. Lisbeth Gant spoke about having a panel discussion after the performance was historic. “What we are doing tonight is historic because we are watching theater and also discussing it afterward exploring how it affects our lives. But we must remember we can make history everyday. If a tiny fraction of us extended ourselves into society and fight the obstacles that get in our way, many more high points can be achieved by us as individuals.”
David Bianchi, CEO of Exertion Films and who has recently performed his slam poetry on TV Channel One’s “Lexus Verses and Flow” commented on the how Dutchman still rang true today, “I was just having a discussion about this subject and can say this play still follows an archaic social relevance, whether we’re reading Dutchman or Shakespeare. The literal mechanism of injustice still resonates in our culture. LA is not as overt but racism still continues. A dialogue on this subject is important.”
This version of Dutchman won a spot in the National Black Theater Festival occurring now in the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and will be performing tonight, August 6th and the weekend, August 7th and 8th. Tanna commented on this honor, “I’m excited and proud that we were accepted to National Black Theater Festival. Many productions of Dutchman are being performed all over the country at any given time, but ours was chosen to be shown here and this came from a reading we did last December.”
Levy Lee Simon pondered what Amiri Baraka would say about the weighty affect his work, Dutchman still has on American society. “Being a writer myself I wish I could have asked him some questions before he had left the planet. ‘Did you know that your profound metaphors would last a life time or many lifetimes?’ Even when we get past racism and look back at Dutchman as a work of art, was it by divine inspiration that Baraka was channeling from someplace else?”
In these three Wednesday performances of Dutchman at the Edgemar Theater, a small microcosm of hope and respect was created by the after-panel discussions. We all learned from another, we discussed and shared our thoughts and feelings by respecting our differences of opinions and rejoicing in our similarities and our humanness.
DOUBLE BILLED PERFORMANCE
*DUTCHMAN Jazz Lion Productions, North Hollywood, CA Kilpatrick/Cambridge Theatre Company, Los Angeles, CA
A two character play between a young middle class Black man and a Bohemian white woman with suspect intentions. Their meeting, flirtation, intellectual discourse and sexual dance lead to a struggle for life and death. Written by Amiri Baraka. Directed by Levy Lee Simon. (Drama – General Audience) (Gaines Ballroom – Lower Level – Embassy Suites)
*THE LAST REVOLUTIONARY
Jazz Lion Productions, North Hollywood, CA & Kilpatrick/Cambridge Theatre Company, Los Angeles, CA
Revolutionary Mac Perkins is preparing to stop anti-Obama sentiment when former friend Jack Armstrong shows up and confronts him about his use of 70s tactics in today’s world. Secrets are exposed that lead to a life and death confrontation. Written by Levy Lee Simon. Directed by Erik Kilpatrick. (Drama – General Audience) (Gaines Ballroom – Lower Level – Embassy Suites)
Photo Credit: Claire Aronson and Mikey Adam Cohen