Penumbra Theatre is reviving two important works of African American drama from the mid-1960s with Dutchman and The Owl Answers. These powerful one acts portray two very different ways in which black Americans have been discriminated against. In their own time they pushed buttons, and today they still do, though perhaps in different ways than when they first did.
Nathan Barlow plays a well-dressed African American man, Clay, confronted by Katie Guentzel as Lula, a white woman who comes onto him with an aggressive sense of sexuality she wields like a psychic hatchet with a subliminally racist blade. (Clay is a likable guy who just wants to live and let live.) Is Dutchman playwright Amiri Baraka making a statement about black men versus white women or about blacks in general versus whites in general? It could be either, but it’s difficult to pretend that the gender element is anything but profoundly significant.
Veteran director Lou Bellamy, in top form, does not have his actors shy away from this. Barlow and Guentzel crackle with heretical and lyrical energy, never pulling away from the play’s vivid sense of the erotic as a power force. This modest production at points feels satisfyingly larger than life. As actions unfold, a surreal element comes into play that prepares us for the second play of the evening.
In bold contrast, director Talvin Wilks works a theatrical miracle in its own right with The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy. Many modern plays are written as surreal or dreamlike, but often that quality is not manifested in the staging. However, Wilks ushers us into what truly feels like an utterly different dimension than the one we enter into before the show starts. Stylistically, Kennedy demands a staged reality not of this world and it is as if the space we are in actually exudes that! The technical elements of the play are strong, but it is as much to do with an acting ensemble that seems to tap into the mystical. Those familiar with plays by Aishah Rahman and Ntozake Shange may well find a kind of psychic similarity with Kennedy, though all three have their own distinct individual nether regions of the imagination.
Kennedy takes us into territory not in focus with today’s particular civil rights lens. Protagonist Clara deeply wants to embrace her British roots and culture but is disallowed this because she is the offspring of a black servant impregnated by a white man. Austene Van gives a haunting performance that borders on the sublime; one of her best performances ever. It’s as if Clara is walking in limbo in endlessly vain hopes of her birthright. The grit of Dutchman contrasted with the ethereal profundity of The Owl Answers make for a remarkable evening of theater that delves into the subconscious with a remarkable assurance not often seen.
Dutchman & The Owl Answers
Through March 27
Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul