Dallas — In the basement performance space of Arts Mission Oak Cliff, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre presents a subway car carrying a suited black man and a precociously predatory white woman. This is Dutchman, the double-barreled dose of 1964 rage written by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) as he was divorcing his white wife.
Explaining the origins of the play is easy. That it continues to be relevant is hard.
Jocelyn Girigorie has created a chic subway car out of the long room by adding poles and hanging cardboard squares as windows above and behind the chairs lining room. The audience can enter on subway-yellow walkways after getting a metro pass shaped ticket upstairs. Directors Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Johnson have committed to an immersive experience. The audience becomes culpable as the bystanders to the action of the forty-minute train trip.
It’s a little unfair as they have a vested interest in not stopping the show.
Lindsay Ryan as Lula provides a clear counterpoint to McClendon Giles’ dapper Clay in sandals and shorts that disappear under her long-sleeved red T-shirt emblazoned with Southern Methodist University. It’s not a femme fatale look, but the uniform is familiar down to the Starbucks cup. For his part, Giles’ Clay is instantly eager to make the acquaintance and more of this vivacious vixen who offers him an apple along with her provocations. Though they are dressed that way, this isn’t real life.
It’s more than that.
The language has a lyrical elevation despite the realistic scene and the occasional reference to the audience’s inclusion. There is a shared feeling that what is going on here is wrong from the outset. A grim fairytale. Though the engine of the evening is sexual attraction, the focus is racial identity. Lula uses hers to tease and torment Clay over his.
In directors Zilbermann and Johnson’s production, the debut of Metamorphosis, there is not a seduction. Ryan’s Lula punctuates her gyrations with jumps in an overall artless approach, but it doesn’t matter. No one turns a train. The outcome of this encounter is as inevitable as the mythical ship for which it is named: The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship cursed to sail forever.
Ryan and Giles take turns to shine. The first half belongs to Ryan with her gleefully aggressive Lula. Giles’ Clay remains seated through most of her onslaught uncomfortable but encouraging of her assault. When Lula goes too far, he takes over, taking the stage and the opportunity to give voice to a pent up rage that belongs to more than the character.
The climax of the play remains powerful and troubling. There’s a talkback afterwards that will help to you catch your breath and give the audience a chance to share theirs.
Maybe that is how we get off this train.
And make this play no longer so relevant.
» Catch up on the genesis of Metamorphosis in the monthly TheaterJones column "Living Theatre," written by Zilbermann and Johnson. In the most recent column, they discuss Dutchman