Seething and signifying

There are those who contend that LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)’s early postmodern drama Dutchman is a dated piece of revolution. The new production of the work at Zeitgeist, however, is a reminder that it’s still a highly relevant script. Coupled with a second one-act play, Phillip Hayes Dean’s The Owl Killer, the production, directed by Boukaer Williams, provides a deeply disturbing, but highly relevant exploration of race issues in a confrontational manner that is unfortunately as necessary in Detroit today as it was in the ’60s when these plays were written.

Williams leads with The Owl Killer, a highly charged drama centering on a brutal murder. The murderer never surfaces in the play; rather, the drama deals with its aftereffects on his family. While sister Stella Mae pleads with her iron-fisted father for money to help her brother skip town, mother Emma carries on meekly, caving in to her husband’s will.

Patriarch Noah decrees that his son will receive no assistance. Noah is hardworking and bitterly resentful of the ever-present need to kowtow to the "crackers" at work. This bile has infested his family life; all his children knew growing up was that they were resented. The result is that Stella Mae has slept around and prostituted herself and her brother, who killed owls as a child, became a murderer. In an effort to solicit aid for her brother, Stella Mae verbally confronts the father and reveals the litany of abuses which drove her to her way of life. Her brother’s confrontation is silent but even more drastic and propels the play’s chilling conclusion.

The Owl Killer speaks volumes on the all-pervasive nature of racism. Noah’s work situation does not just beat the man, it beats the family. Unfortunately, lackluster performances by all three cast members – Yvonne P. Thomas as Stella Mae, Douglas K. McCray as Noah and Sadie Bernice as Emma – undermine the power of Dean’s work. Thomas’ character is the strongest, but even hers is predominantly one-dimensional in this portrayal. Mediocre acting is difficult to endure in any drama, but poorly performed revolutionary theater is particularly uncomfortable to sit through. While still worth watching due to the relevance of the text, The Owl Killer suffers greatly from this lack.

Dutchman, on the other hand, despite other problems, resonates on a higher plane. Jones’ drama centers entirely on Lula, a white temptress described by one scholar as Western culture’s bitch-goddess, and Clay, the black man who is her prey. Lula seduces Clay, initially the sole passenger on a New York City subway car, through a wild combination of sex appeal, superficial intellectual commentary, unenlightened observations on race and bizarre non sequiturs. The sex appeal outweighs all other factors, of course, and Clay falls into this stranger’s lair until she oversteps the tenuous line between white liberalism – or what could possibly be construed as such – and white racism. Clay finally puts Lula – and white America – in her place, but there is no Hollywoodesque ascent to racial harmony in the end. Lula delivers the final – and fatal – shot, then moves on to a new victim.

Steve Gaskill gives an impeccable performance in the difficult role of Clay, appropriately understated at times, compellingly forceful at others. The play’s best moment comes during Clay’s lengthy indictment of white America, in which Gaskill addresses individual audience members. For the actor to confront the audience without alienating it requires finesse and Gaskill nails it.

Jamie Warrow eventually warms to the role of Lula, but wrongly saves the character’s insane abandon for the play’s end – it should be demonstrated throughout. Not only does her initial cold, calculating portrayal defy Jones’ characterization of Lula, it seems to reprise previous characters that Warrow has portrayed. When the play really heats up, however, Warrow cuts loose and adds a whole new dimension to her character, upping the tempo of the drama in the process.

Two directorial adaptations detract somewhat from the performance. Williams’ cloaking of all-black train passengers in white masks results in overkill, and his casting of Lula’s second potential victim as a tough guy who refuses her advances is antithetical to the script. This twist results in misplaced humor and a message of small triumph that belies the spirit of Jones’ work.

Ultimately, the transgressions and failings of the Zeitgeist productions are outweighed by Gaskill’s fine performance and the significance of the chance to witness these works’ return to a Detroit stage. After all, as the millennium approaches, we’re still waiting for the revolution.

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