“Dutch Masters”: A terse, tense dissection of race in America

Almost anything I say about Greg Keller’s edgy two-man play, in its West Coast premiere directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, is going to be a plot spoiler, so I’ll limit it to this:

Just about everyone is familiar with the all-too-classic story of the Black or Latina servant/caregiver who winds up spending more time with and making a greater emotional investment in the white children of her employer than with her own children whom she sees so little of at home.

A well known folk lullaby, sung by an African American nanny in the Old South, summarizes this mundane social phenomenon, contrasting two infants trying to get to sleep:

Hush-a-by, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, my little baby.
When you wake, you shall have,
And all the pretty little horses.
Black and bay, dappled and gray,
All the pretty little horses.

Hush-a-by, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, my little baby.
Way down yonder, down in the meadow
There’s a poor little lambie.
Bees and butterflies flitting round his eyes
He’s crying out for his mammy.

How it comes about that two young men in their late teens, one black, one white, meet on a Bronx-bound D train in mid-Manhattan on a hot summer day in 1992 is at first glance a rather commonplace occurrence. But it turns out to be far more than that as the comedy-drama ricochets back and forth between intimidating threats of terror and violence and glimmers of amity and connection.

In a terse 75 minutes that nearly replicate real time, the Black man, Eric (Corey Dorris), assumes the upper hand in a tense, fast-paced encounter that makes Steve (Josh Zuckerman) confused, anxious and afraid, yet also somehow mesmerized by Eric’s taunting, though facile sleight of tongue. The two characters turn out to be shadows of each other.

What is revealed is how much African Americans have contributed to the larger American society and culture, much of which goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. And also, understandably, how much resentment and desire for revenge – not simply for justice – still reverberate through society, especially in the face of movements on the part of white people, real and imagined, to put Black people back in their place. We still see plenty of that, completely undisguised, in the pro-Trump movement.

There’s hardly a single hot-button issue in American highly charged race relations that Keller (who is white) fails to push.

“We chose Greg Keller’s Dutch Masters,” says John Perrin Flynn, producer and founding artistic director of Rogue Machine Theatre, “because, in an intimate, very personal way, it evokes the devastation of the politics of Race in America. These are real people, and as their story unfolds it becomes humorous, then frightening, and then heartbreaking. What’s terrifying about this story is how little has changed since 1992.”

Playwright Greg Keller is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Noüy prize. He wrote his first play, The Young Left, while attending NYU’s graduate program. Produced at the Cherry Lane Theater, that play earned him a Lila Acheson Wallace fellowship at Juilliard’s Playwriting Program. His second play, The Seduction Community, a comedy about pick-up artists, was produced at Juilliard, and workshopped at Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, and Naked Angels. At Juilliard, he wrote Dutch Masters, which has received productions in New York, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and now L.A. His fourth play, Qaddafi’s Daughters, was produced at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and his newest play, The Jokers, just had its first reading at LAByrinth’s Summer Intensive. Keller has also worked extensively on Broadway and Off-Broadway as an actor, appearing opposite Cynthia Nixon, Jane Fonda, Jeff Goldblum, and Linda Lavin. This season, he is playing George W. Bush in the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s, Scenes from Court Life. If Dutch Masters is a sample of his gifts, Keller is clearly a writer to watch out for.

“The deeper I investigated, the more I related to what these characters are searching for and the ideas that are dramatized,” says director Guillermo Cienfuegos of this play. “It’s about identity, acknowledgment and vindication. Everyone has a question they need answered. Some of us never get that answer. And some of us get an answer we don’t want.”

Corey Dorris (Eric) was awarded Juilliard’s Robin Williams Scholarship. He graduated from the Juilliard School Drama Division. At the University of Michigan he majored in theatre and African American studies. After this L.A. theatre debut, we look forward to seeing more of him on stage. His total command of all the hip linguistic, musical and gestural tropes in popular African American culture is astounding. It is also a tribute to the playwright who wrote this dialogue, as much of it sounds so improvisatory.

Josh Zuckerman (Steve) has appeared with numerous regional theatre companies, and has played major roles in feature comedy and drama films. He has had recurring roles in Desperate Housewives, Kyle XY, 90210, NYPD Blue and CSI Miami. As Steve he brilliantly inhabits simultaneous worlds of fear and attraction, white lies, twitchy nervousness, denial and perhaps not so innocent ignorance.

The production team for Dutch Masters truly merits mention. David Mauer is responsible for the set design. We open on a subway car, then expand out into the graffitied city, and quite to our surprise, after a brief, soundless blackout, we are suddenly inside Eric’s apartment. Ric Zimmerman created the lighting, Chris Moscatiello made the sound design with its bang-on-a-can urban esthetic, and Christine Cover Ferro created the costumes. Because of the complexities of the staging inside the apartment, stage manager Ramon Valdez also deserves mention.

OK, the title. Not that much of a plot spoiler: Eric handles a loose cardboard Dutch Masters cigar container, which leads to an astonishing riff on colonialism, the early history of New York, slavery and the great tradition of Dutch painting. Point being: The enslavement of Black people has been part of this country’s history since the early 1600s. The dualism of slaves and masters is still very tangibly with us.

Dutch Masters runs Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm through October 3, at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029. “Pay What You Can” night is Monday, September 5. For further information and tickets  contact (855)-585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. The Rogue Machine Theatre is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RogueMachineTheatre.

Photo: Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman / John Flynn.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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