Two Civil Rights-era plays create a dialogue at Penumbra

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Penumbra Theatre is currently staging two important works by African-American playwrights, both of which premiered in the 1960s. Pairing the two pieces, Dutchman by Amiri Barka and The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy, creates a fruitful dialogue between the writers, who use very different tools to create and discover meaning amid the Civil Rights Movement.

In The Owl Answers, Kennedy looks at the ramifications of procreation between white slave owners and their black slaves, while Baraka's Dutchman uses a meeting between a black man and a white woman on a subway as a metaphor for white supremacy. Stylistically, Baraka’s script differs greatly from Kennedy’s. Where Baraka employs a heightened realism, Kennedy’s piece is much more abstract. However, both writers explore similar themes, as each examines the power dynamics involved in interracial sexual relationships. 

In Penumbra’s production of The Owl Answers, directed by Talvin Wilks, Austene Van soars as a woman of mixed racial heritage who strives to find her place in the world. Van is an incredibly generous performer, expressing larger-than-life emotions with a remarkable subtlety and truthfulness.

Kennedy’s surrealistic script uses rich symbolism and layered meaning. It’s not an a + b = c type of story. Rather, the archetypal characters (from historical and literary figures to “every man” roles) and dreamlike narrative circle around meaning so that it oozes out from the side and in other unexpected ways.

Dutchman, directed by Lou Bellamy, is a less successful realization, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One has to do with the spacing of the piece, and the other has to do with the chemistry between the two main actors. For this production, Evans’ subway sits upstage, leaving additional playing space in the thrust area downstage, where much of the action takes place. Taking Clay and Lulu’s interactions outside of the confines of the subway car does a disservice, as we lose a sense of the danger of the scene taking place in a confined space.

Further, actors Nathan Barlow (Clay) and Kate Guentzel (Lulu) don’t really sizzle together. While there’s plenty of touching and flirting between them, their exchange lacks the connection necessary for the end's intense build-up.

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Part of the problem comes from the actors differing so dramatically in their stylistic interpretation. Guentzel’s Lula appears to suffer from some kind of severe mental illness. Her mannerisms are so divorced from normal human behavior, it's as if she is suffering from a psychosis, which makes it easy to lose the sense that she's supposed to be a symbolic character. She represents white power, personified in the body of a white woman, who throughout American history has acted as a treasure to be protected in the white imagination against the forbidding danger of black men. Guentzel's over-the-top portrayal makes Lula so idiosyncratic that it's harder to make that connection to broader symbolic implications. Meanwhile, Barlow’s Clay lacks a presence to match her, particularly in his monologue at the end.

Maruti Evans’ set of a subway train, used in Dutchman and the beginning of The Owl Answers, is transformed during the latter play into a majestic structure where angels and creatures hover around the main character, guiding and thwarting her. Matt Lefebvre’s brilliant costume design, with gothic masks, sweeping capes, and feathers galore, adds to the rich tapestry of the production. 

Because of the power of Baraka’s script, Dutchman still works, and both of these short plays are worth seeing. The Owl Answers is especially magical and illuminating. 

Dutchman and The Owl Answers run through March 27 at Penumbra Theatre


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