Monday, February 27, 2017

Dutchman/Trifles—Defunkt Theatre—SE Portland

“Carefully Taught”

This double-edged sword brings you “Dutchman,” from the mid-60’s, by Amiri Baraka and “Trifles,” from the early 1900’s, by Susan Glaspell, both directed by Sarah Armitage.  It is playing at their space, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (in back of the Common Grounds Coffee Shop--street parking only), through March 18th.  For more information, go to their site at

As the old song goes from “South Pacific,” you have to be “carefully taught to hate and to fear….”  Tis sad but true.  It implies that prejudice is not necessarily inherent in children but they learn it as they mature, from any number of sources…parents, schoolmates, friends, relatives, etc., and now the newest sensation, the electronic god, the Internet and Social Media.

These two one-acts explore that phenomenon in an interesting way.  By receding in time, 50 to 100 years, only to discover that prejudice/hatred/fear of anyone not like “us” may go back to the beginning of Life itself.  Measuring by today’s standards, are we to say that we’ve “come a long way, baby” or to conclude, “it ain’t necessarily so.”  As we open up more doors, we may discover secrets about ourselves as a race that maybe we don’t want to know.  Progress has its price, you know!

In Trifles we have a detective story.  The men, Mr. Henderson (James Dixon), Mr. Hale (Jess Ford) and Mr. Peters (Michael Jordan), are investigating a murder.  It seems that an upstanding citizen, Mr. Wright, has been strangled in his own bedroom at night and the only potential witness was his wife, who was sleeping soundly next to him.  She, of course, is arrested but the men have no clue as to motive.

But two of the wives of these men, Mrs. Hale (Elizabeth Jackson) and Mrs. Peters (Paige McKinney) see the crime scene differently.  They begin sharing gossip about the couple, as well as exploring the odds and ends, the trifles, that are laying about in plain sight, like a bird cage—with no bird, her sewing basket, little inconsistencies among items in the kitchen and pantry, et. al.  In reality, they discover the possible motivation, but, after all, they are just women and what do they know….

In Dutchman, we are aboard a subway car in The Big Apple.  A polite, Afro-American gentleman, Clay (Dixon, again), is on his way to a party.  Also aboard this roaring beast is a seductive, white chick, Lula (Jackson, again), obviously on the make.  Like out of a perverse fairy-tale, the maiden (not) offers a (poisonous) apple to the Knight (probably).  He is trying to resist her but she becomes very persuasive, even when more passengers board this relentless vehicle.

At his rope’s end, he balks and delivers a tirade as to his true feelings about his station in life and the rest of the society at large.  His message is certainly heard but not heeded and the end of the ride is not something the onlookers anticipated.  A web has been woven and the prey (Isaiah Spriggs) is still afoot, and so the Game continues….  The ends of these two plays you’ll just have to experience for yourself, if you dare!

These are both powerful shows, exploring the roots of prejudice but, I suspect, not only giving a history lesson, of sorts, but offering the observations that we may not have come as far as we think we have and that we still have much further to go.  Unfortunately, the political situation of today might take us a giant step backward, as we could encourage even more prejudice toward others not like “us.”  The staging of these two dramas is such that you are immediately pulled into the action and become, in some ways, part of it, with no escaping the sense of garnering some responsibility for the outcomes.

This is very adult in subject matter, so be aware.  The acting by all is exciting, and Dixon and Jackson are particularly effective in the subway arena.  They seem to undulate in rhythm with the car, as it jumps and jousts its way, hell-bent for leather, to the riveting conclusion.

I recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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