Joey Grihalva

Dutchman Offers Powerful, Intimate Show

The racial confrontation in Amira Baraka’s 1964 is still thrilling and relevant.

By - Dec 18th, 2014 02:41 pm


To me, the Underground Collaborative, in the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall, is one of the more exciting artistic spaces the city has to offer. The current production there is a staging of Amiri Baraka’s Obie Award winning 1964 play Dutchman. The one-act depicts an intense encounter on a NYC subway between a black man and white woman.

The last two shows I attended at The UC were stand-up comedy, featuring a simple stage in a corner of the Arcade Theatre. This time around there was no stage, but seating on rafters and chairs arranged on the floor. I thought for a moment the audience was invited to sit on the set.

Dutchman was produced by The World’s Stage Theatre Company, which is led by Artistic Director Gretchen Mahkorn. She explained the interesting (and admittedly, somewhat confusing) choice of set design.



“The director, Sherrick Robinson, and I collaborated on our vision for the set. We wanted to keep it simple and create an immersive environment for the audience to walk into. It was important that the chairs used ‘onstage’ be the same ones that the audience sat in. That way it engulfs the audience into the subway as well.”

To further the NYC subway experience Loren M. Watson uses real audio clips for a subtle, atmospheric sound design layered with intimate, ambient lighting (consultation by AntiShadows LLC). The effect was so true to form that I had flashbacks to my latest NYC trip just a couple weeks ago.

The action starts once the train is ready to leave the station and Baraka’s timeless dialogue comes to life. Though the play was written half a century ago, its thrilling exploration of race and class is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1964, especially considering the recent focus on excessive policing of the black community.

Marcus Causey plays the role of Clay, the unassuming black man who is drawn into a volatile confrontation with the strange and maniacal Lula, played by Sasha Katherine Sigel. Their interplay is like a train that picks up steam as the production reaches its dramatic conclusion, broken up with a brief intermission. In the first half Lula lays down her gauntlet and after the break Clay explodes. Causey, who has not acted professionally in three years, was immediately drawn to the role.

“I was first introduced to the play in high school theater class. I was interested in its overt themes of race and what it ‘means’ to be a black man in America. I feel for Clay being a young, educated, middle class black man myself. I couldn’t imagine how I might have handled a situation like that. The piece is rarely done so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped.”

Given the raw, emotional nature of the performance, Causey was thrown when informed that they would run through it three times a night in rehearsal. But he was undaunted and carried on. The work shows in his gripping portrayal of Clay. He is also a fan of The UC, which he feels has an intimate, urban vibe not found in most of Milwaukee’s theater spaces.

The World’s Stage has two more productions in their 2014-2015 season that will provoke and challenge audiences, addressing different social justice issues. The work of Baraka, who passed away earlier this year, certainly qualifies. His provocative style is suggested by this quote from years ago:“There is no justice in America, but it is the fight for justice that sustains you.”

In her playbill note, Makhorn describes her group’s approach this way: “As artists it is OUR HONOR to provide an outlet in times of trial. Art reminds us – we are all connected, we all have a story, and we all matter.”

Dutchman plays at 7:30pm tonight, Friday and Saturday at The Underground Collaborative, 161 West Wisconsin Avenue in the lower level of the Shops of Grand Avenue Mall. 1:10 running time. Tickets:

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