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This Masterful Dutch Treat Is a Riveting Rumination on Race—and Great Fun

Ed Rampell: Considering America’s ongoing racial strife and dissension, this production is right on the money. Dutch Masters shows that Rogue Machine and the company’s artistic director, John Perrin Flynn, haven’t lost their edge
Dutch Masters

Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman (Photo: John Perrin Flynn)

DUTCH MASTERS Theatre Review

A funny thing happened at the MET Theatre: Shortly after the proverbial curtain lifted on Greg Keller’s I started loathing it. Corey Dorris’ portrayal of menacing Eric, liberally (pun intended) spewing the “N” word, swaggering about, struck me as being a stereotypical depiction of Black males straight out of Donald Trump central casting. But boy was I ever wrong—this is Rogue Machine, after all!—and Eric is really an extremely multi-hued, nuanced character. By the time the curtain fell I was on my feet, joining the well-deserved standing ovation the MET aud was awarding this brilliant play.

Considering America’s ongoing racial strife and dissension, this production is right on the money. Dutch Masters shows that Rogue Machine and the company’s artistic director, John Perrin Flynn, haven’t lost their edge

Dutch Masters is set in 1992 in Manhattan, during the mayoralty of David Dinkins, New York City’s only African American mayor. Shortly before Dinkins took office, Yusef Hawkins was lynched in Bensonhurst for the “crime” of attempting to purchase a used car while Black. Eric notes this and other notorious racial incidents—such as Reverend Al Sharpton’s courageous 1986 march in Howard Beach (a few miles from where I grew up) following another in lynching—in his dialogue.

Awareness of this racially charged background is essential for fully grasping Dutch Masters’ essence. The comedy-drama (with emphasis on the latter) opens on the D train in NYC’s subway system. From the plastic seats to the graffiti, scenic designer David Mauer perfectly captures the ambiance and visual details that realistically convey a sense of riding a train in Manhattan, enhanced by Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design.

When the action begins, Steve (Josh Zuckerman) is a Caucasian passenger trying to mind his own beeswax and pass the time by reading a novel on the Bronx-bound subway car when Eric invades his space. Why does Eric behave the way he does, alternating between aggressive intimidation and friendliness? The white and Black passengers are bound for a racial confrontation as the D careens from 59th Street Columbus Circle to 125th Street in Harlem—which, BTW, is the longest nonstop stretch from one stop to another in the entire NYC subway system. What is Eric’s real agenda?

In Keller’s brilliant allegory about race relations the scenes fluidly flow from one location to another. As Ovation Award-winning director Guillermo Cienfuegos told Splash Magazine: “I’ve often used film-editing concepts in my staging… I wanted… to present the play’s cinematic elements in a theatrical way.” The cast and crew do so eminently, including with the most surprising scenic transition this reviewer has ever seen (or actually not seen) onstage. (O, Mauer, verily thou art a sorcerer!) Although there is no intermission in this 80 or so minute production, it does seem like there are three different settings and two distinctive acts. Rather cleverly, only Eric (son of a servant) is glimpsed changing scenery: Of course the Black character does all of the manual labor, underscoring the story’s leitmotif about racism in America.

At one point the conversation turns towards Dutch Masters, a brand of cigars—based on his individual state of mind, each character has his own interpretation as to what the image of 17th century males from Holland that adorns the cigar box means. Eric deciphers the picture to be referencing “masters” in the sense of owners of slaves. His white counterpart, who says he’s an art student, thinks the portraits are of master painters in the sense of being maestros. Actually, the package is emblazoned with Rembrandt’s 1662 painting Syndics of Drapers’ Guild. The oil depicts sampling officials who judged the quality of cloth which weavers wanted to sell to the guild, and the inspectors are shown appraising a piece of fabric.

Dutch Masters
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But more importantly, Keller’s Dutch Masters refers to LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) 1964 play Dutchman, which like the former, has a NYC subway setting and crackles with racial and sexual tension (between a Black male and white female). Dutchman—which was also adapted for the big screen in 1967, starring Al Freeman, Jr. and Shirley Knight—was a forerunner of the emerging Black Power movement. Jones/Baraka was a contemporary of novelist, poet, bard and essayist James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, Go Tell It On the Mountain, etc.).

Indeed, Dutch Masters is in the tradition of African American-themed letters (although Keller appears to be of the Caucasoid persuasion). There is much of Bigger Thomas—the tragic protagonist of Richard Wright’s 1940 classic Native Son - in Eric, but of the novels with Black subject matter, Eric reminds me most of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man. Eric’s angst is largely based on his sense that he is an unseen presence—especially in relation and in contrast to Steve, whose whiteness - with all the perks, privileges and advantages that accompany that status in the racial pecking order - makes him very, very visible. As Eric laments to Steve: “I’m your shadow, the brother you never had.”

And like Dutchman, Dutch Masters has an extremely clever switcheroo which, like the plot twist in Next to Normal (currently on the boards at the Pico Playhouse), this critic definitely did not see coming, taking me totally by surprise. Cienfuegos, who helms this taut, tense drama with a master’s touch, told me that Keller “was influenced by Dutchman. Dutch Masters is a homage to Dutchman.”

[PLOT SPOILER ALERT:] In the denouement, revealing the presence of a weapon raises the stakes. How it is used—or isn’t—determines whether this powerful play, full of withering bitterness, rage, loss as well as wistfulness—will end. On a note of despair or of hope, for class and racial reconciliation?

Zuckerman’s resume includes stage plus big and little screen credits, and his Steve is well-meaning and not a witting racist. Dorris received Julliard’s Robin Williams Scholarship, is on YouTube with TeamStarkid, which according to press notes has had 200 million views worldwide and is here making his L.A. theater debut. While Zuckerman is quite good, Eric is really the drama’s protagonist and this is really Dorris’ show. With his wild mood swings and hidden agenda, as said, this is anything but a caricature. Dorris endows Eric with flesh and blood frailties and a tortured psyche yearning to transcend the estrangement imposed by racism and the poverty he often alludes to, from his shabby rundown flat to his inability get proper medical care and so on. Eric’s belligerency and false bravado is a masquerade intended to disguise the world of pain he lives in due to America’s original sin, of racism. In the end, Eric is bequeathed a back story that makes him all too human. For casting directors, agents and the like suffering from the “#OscarsTooWhite” syndrome, a cure would be to meet the MET and see Dorris work his, well, Black magic.

In 1848’s The Communist Manifesto German philosopher Karl Marx wrote: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Had Marx been an American, however, he may well have thundered: “The history of all hitherto existing U.S. society is the history of race struggles.” And a specter still haunts the USA—the specter of racism.

Considering America’s ongoing racial strife and dissension, this production is right on the money. Dutch Masters shows that Rogue Machine and the company’s artistic director, John Perrin Flynn - who selected it for this West Coast premiere—haven’t lost their edge and that they are still going rogue. This reviewer enthusiastically recommends this play—to theatergoers of all ethnicities, but perhaps, above all, to racists. Fans of virtuoso acting and of gripping well-written, well-staged, deftly directed drama will also enjoy and be moved by it. After experiencing Dutch Masters, ticket buyers may proclaim: “Dutch Lives Matter.”

[dc]R[/dc]ogue Machine Theatre presents Dutch Masters on Mondays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 3 at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029. For more information: See www.roguemachinetheatre.com or call (855)585-5185.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell