Nebraska Rep’s “Dutchman” Powerfully Disturbing

by Julia Doerr

“Dutchman,” a play first produced Off-Broadway in 1964, remains a provocative and relevant allegory about race in America even 55 years later. Don’t miss your opportunity to see it performed in the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s excellent production between now and February 24. The challenging script created by playwright Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) is full of demands on both the actors and the audience. It is sure to make you uncomfortable for a little more than an hour.

Go anyway.

First and foremost, loads of praise are due to the two lead actors, Eugene H. Russell IV as Clay and Emily Raine Blythe as Lula. Their exceptionally strong performances make this play work. It would be a painful hour indeed if either of these roles were played by someone not up to their difficult task. These are bravura performances, full of courage and apt choices.  In particular, the pure physicality of Blythe’s acting is squirmingly good. Everybody is a bit embarrassed by it except, apparently, her. Just as the role calls for.

The mostly silent ensemble cast is strong as well. One can see that each of these student actors has chosen to inhabit a specific character with unique reactions to the drama played out in their presence on a claustrophobic subway car hurtling through time. They are not just bodies filling space on the stage. At the climactic moment of the play, their unison breathing contributes to the ensuing tension by creating a haunting effect.

Thursday’s performance was followed by a very welcome talk-back session led by the director, Ron Himes of St. Louis. He expressed some initial surprise at being asked to stage “Dutchman” in Lincoln, Nebraska, “of all places,” but acknowledged that he had not yet become familiar with our city. In answer to a different question, Himes claimed responsibility for about 10% of the creation of the lead roles, the remaining 90% entrusted to the actors themselves. Clearly, 100% of the process was in good hands.

The mystery of the play’s title was explained in part at the talk session, too. “Dutchman” alludes to both the Flying Dutchman of Wagner’s opera, doomed to sail a ghost ship forever through time, and a slave ship of the same name. Just outside the door to the Temple Building’s studio theater a video also explains this connection.

Although it is tragic that a play about race written in the early 1960s is still a relevant mirror of society in 2019, it makes this production just as fresh and important today as it was when “Dutchman” won an Obie Award for its script. It is worthy of your attention.

If you go:

Performances are February 15 at 7:30 pm (opening night); February 19, 20, 21, 22 at 7:30 pm; February 16, 23 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; and February 17, 24 at 2:00 pm. Performances, which will include a post-show conversation, are in the Temple Building’s Studio Theatre, 12th & R Streets, Lincoln. Tickets are available by contacting the Lied Center Ticket Office at 402.472.4747 or 800.432.3231 or at the ticket office window at 301 North 12th Street Lincoln NE between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tickets are available online 24 hours at Individual tickets are $30, $15 for students/OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) members. 

Julia Doerr is a retired high school English teacher with a lifelong love of plays, both as literature and performance. She assisted, as dramaturg, with the direction of several Shakespeare plays during her tenure at Lincoln High School, where she spent 27 of her 33 years teaching. Julia loves to attend the theater, to write, and to share her opinions.  That makes writing reviews her dream assignment.

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