Amiri Baraka’s 1964 one-act and Darren Canady’s new response piece make up a transporting double bill about race and gender on the NYC subway.
As anyone who’s paying attention to basically anything could tell you, this is a pretty complicated time in the world. That is, of course, putting it mildly, particularly when it comes to matters of race and gender. And all of that makes this an ideal time for a full-throttle staging of Dutchman, Amiri Baraka’s incendiary 1964 play about race, sexuality, violence and the kind of barely controlled fury that bubbles ever so gently just beneath a person’s surface.
On the subject of things bubbling beneath the surface, that’s a key part of what works—and, much more rarely, what doesn’t—about American Blues Theater’s season-opening double-bill. The pairing of Baraka’s complicated poetic masterpiece with TRANSit, a world premiere from playwright Darren Canady, allows directors Chuck Smith (Dutchman) and Lisa Portes (TRANSit) to draw out the elements that link these two stories, in ways both subtle and not. Most frequently, it’s the latter. No one seems to feel the need to be coy about why these stories are being told now, or about how they’re linked. But some of the evening’s finest moments occur as the fuse burns slowly down, when a simple moment of fidgeting or a brief flash of light gives the audience just a glimpse of the storm raging away underneath a collected exterior.
That’s, of course, due in no small part to the exemplary ensemble assembled by Smith, Portes, and the company’s casting team. In Dutchman, Clay (Michael Pogue) encounters Lula (Amanda Drinkall) on an empty subway car, and as an explicit flirtation morphs into something still more charged, the play places greater and greater demands on its actors. Both Pogue and Drinkall more than rise to the task, using inherent charm as a scalpel that gives both performers easier access to the wounds they’re about to salt. When the time comes for that charm, laced throughout with something much more sour, to fall completely away, neither shies away from what Smith and Baraka demand. There are a few hiccups along the way—Drinkall and Pogue occasionally seem to disconnect—but the play’s centerpiece, a dense and delirious monologue from Clay, wants only a match to burn the theater right down, thanks both to Pogue’s expert delivery and Drinkall’s unflinching stillness.
While TRANSit may not be quite such a mountain to climb, it’s a worthy partner to Baraka’s play, and that in and of itself is no small achievement. Cannady’s story is also set on a subway car, but the writing, performances, and Sarah E. Ross’s excellent scenic design make it clear that the train’s only a setting. What links these plays runs much deeper. TRANSit similarly focuses on a person of color and a white companion, and like Dutchman, the characters benefit from the skills of two rock solid performers. Veronica (Manny Buckley), a trans woman of color, climbs aboard a car accompanied by a gay friend, the blonde and constantly snapping Luke (Jake Szczepaniak). The conversation that begins then would be compelling enough, as the pair dive almost immediately into everything from cultural appropriation to emotional vulnerability while two club-ready girls giggle from the sidelines. But the action really begins when Lalo (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a “Showtime” subway dancer, bursts onto the car.
TRANSit may not be a perfect play just this second, but for a world premiere, it’s a hell of an accomplishment. It’s always thoughtful, frequently funny, and, like Dutchman, shocking even when the end result seems clear. All three performers shine throughout, aided by a silent but highly valuable ensemble, but the final act offers up both Buckley and Szczepaniak’s finest moments and the play’s greatest stumbles. It’s difficult to describe the frustrating experience of knowing that the choicest moments of a play land in a scene that feels nevertheless tacked on, of seeing two actors doing remarkable work while struggling to stay in control of a train that’s gone off the rails. Still, stumbles aside, it’s a tremendous achievement for a young playwright, and Portes and her cast serve the play as expertly as one could hope.
Both TRANSit and Dutchman cannot be watched passively, nor can they be reviewed entirely from an impersonal distance. They demand your active participation, and that’s perhaps the highest praise that can be afforded to any piece of theater. I write this as a white woman, knowing that much of Baraka’s play will resonate differently with people of color, and knowing that others won’t struggle with the gender issues in that play as I will. I write this as a great appreciator of the fearless work Buckley does to make Veronica come to life, but also in a week in which the casting of cisgender male actor Matt Bomer as a trans woman sparked outrage in the trans community. These tender spots can’t be denied, and nor should they be. They complicate and enrich the experience and the conversations that will undoubtedly follow.
They are bruises on an apple that cannot be shined away. They’re ugly, and they’re in every bite. But bite you should. It’s good for you.
American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center. Written by Amiri Baraka (Dutchman) and Darren Canady (TRANSit). Directed by Chuck Smith (Dutchman) and Lisa Portes (TRANSit). With ensemble casts. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.