By Jenn McKee
Inevitably, staging Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman” is a risk – as evidenced by the audience of only 10 at the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company’s production on Saturday night.
Why? Because the 1964 play confronts issues of race in a bracing, controversial way that pushes us outside of our comfort zones. And while “Dutchman” is short (one hour), it’s full of haunting ambiguities and whiplash-quick emotional shifts that demand an audience’s intellectual participation.
So a lighthearted night of theater, it’s not. But a worthwhile, challenging night of theater? Absolutely.
One reason for this is that the director and the cast offer a talkback after each performance. “Dutchman” is a play that positively begs for post-show discussion, because there’s a lot to unpack and process.
Ostensibly, “Dutchman” focuses on a black man, Clay (Edmund Jones), and a white woman, Lula (Frannie Shepherd-Bates), who meet, flirt, and argue on a train.
Kevin Beltz’s set design puts us in the world of the play before the show even begins; the train car is dingy and looks beaten-down, like the wordless passengers who appear and then disappear throughout the show. Gwen Lindsay’s lighting design also effectively underscores this underworld-like atmosphere.
In terms of acting, Jones provides an excellent, thoughtfully nuanced study of a man who’s drawn down the rabbit hole. Shepherd-Bates, meanwhile, makes Lula a cackling devil; and while this is a legitimate interpretation, a more restrained take on the character would make us more fully understand how Clay falls prey to this seductive, abusive woman.
Chuk Nowak’s music, used throughout the show, nicely registers the zigs and zags of Clay and Lula’s conversation, and director LoriGoe Nowak (wisely) makes sure that the interplay is as visually stimulating as it is intellectually rigorous.
Now, if we can just get some more people out to see the show…
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Nov. 22 (except Halloween). $18. 313-408-7269. http://www.magentagiraffe.org