Bricolage Productions is staging this touchstone 1964 play specifically to spark conversations about race in America. Judging from the post-show talk last Saturday, on opening weekend, it's working.
In fact, the Saturday installment of the Between the Lines discussion series lasted longer than the 50-minute play itself.
To one ticket-holder, the sessions (not to mention the play) were so compelling that he had attended three nights running. "This is really important dialogue," said the man, a white retiree. "I'm learning a lot."
Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) depicts an encounter on a New York subway car in which a white woman alternately provokes and seduces a buttoned-up young black man, leading to sudden violence. Local actors Tami Dixon and Jonathan Berry play Lula and Clay. (See Michelle Pilecki's review for CP.)
Each Between the Lines is facilitated by a different community leader. Saturday night's guest was Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and professor at Columbia University. Fullilove is quite familiar with Pittsburgh, having written Root Shock, a book about the impact of urban dislocation (a la the old Civic Arena) on minority communities.
Fullilove even brought her own guest: Stephen Glassman, who chaired the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for eight years under Gov. Ed Rendell, and now leads Pittsburgh's Community Design Center.
Fullilove said she found the play inspiring — not for the dysfunction it depicts, but in how it depicts it. "We have a repetition compulsion going on in America," she said, referring to the killing of young black men. As much as being a person, Lula is the embodiment of that murderous system. (The specter of Trayvon Martin's shooting, among others, necessarily haunts this show.)
But Fullilove added that it is not only victims who are damaged. "Our whole national community is strangled by this," she said. "The injury of doing harm is as profound as the injury of being harmed."
The actors, too, are affected by the play, but perhaps not as you'd expect. Dixon says that after each performance as the evil Lula, she has to decompress; but Berry said Clay's cathartic speech — a famed monologue about the rage he feels as a black man — is how he lets off steam. "By the time I walk out of here, I'm cool," he said.
On the other hand, the play reminds cast member Kevin Brown that when a black man commits a crime, society suspects all black men — but when a white person commits a crime, only that white person is blamed. Brown voiced skepticism that the play can help. "I don't leave here feeling any better than when I came, because I don't see any change" resulting from the show, he said.
And while it's true that a play like Dutchman is probably preaching to the converted — and rather unlikely to draw many real racists — many in the audience seemed to feel that everyone can benefit by talking about racism openly.
Glassman, for instance, said that he found the play "profoundly disturbing" in its depiction of how racism "erupts without warning." He also spoke of how difficult it had been, in cases before the HRC, to get perpetrators of perceived discriminatory acts to empathize with victims.
Glassman also observed that compared to other cities he's lived in — including Baltimore, New York and Washington, D.C. — Pittsbrgh is deeply segregated, not only racially but economically. And he added that all major American public-school systems are more segregated now than they were at the time of Brown vs. The Board of Education.
People of different races not interacting is bad enough. Never talking about such facts makes things even worse.
"If people don't talk about things, they're not going to change," Glassman said. Silence about racism, Glassman emphasized, is what lets racism flourish. "It allows it to build a life of its own that's acceptable."
But, he added, "It's very difficult to leave this play without having this kind of conversation afterward."
There are seven more performances of Dutchman, starting Thursday night. Here's a list of the remaining Between the Lines discussion leaders, with (when available) the sometimes-provocative titles of of their talks.
Thu., May 3: Bernadette Turner, of Addison Behavioral Care, "How Prejudiced are You? Cultural Perception in ‘Post Racial' America."
Fri., May 4: Bobby Vagt, of the Heinz Endowments
Sat., May 5: Tony Norman, Post-Gazette columnist
Sun., May 6: Tina Doose and Jay Dworin, of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, "American Apartheid"
May 10: Justin Laing, of the Heinz Endowments, "White Supremacy: The First Step to Recovery is Acceptance"
May 11: Kimberly Ellis, artist and educator, "The StoryBoard or the Bullet: The Battle over Black Imagery in the 21st Century"
May 12: WWHAT'S UP (Whites Working and Hoping to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege), "Challenging Racism"