KPBS AIRDATE: November 24, 2006
Every artistic creation is a political act, shaped in the context of its social surroundings. So there is a totally different esthetic at play in two mythic inventions: “Dutchman,” written in 1964, and the world premiere of “Wet, or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes.” One is a deadly drama; the other a buoyant but reflective fantasy. Each language-rich play is inspired by a crucial moment in our nation’s history.
For decades, poet, playwright and novelist Amiri Baraka has been a prominent militant black writer. During the Civil Rights movement, he advocated black power, unity and nationalism, not integration. In his work, he has explored white oppression and African American anger. His breakout play, “Dutchman,” won the Off Broadway Obie Award for Best American play of 1964. Set in a New York City subway car, the incendiary piece concerns a combative, seductive confrontation between a provocative white woman and a middle-class black man. It’s an unsettling, emotionally violent play, just the kind of work Lynx Performance Theatre’s artistic director, Al Germani, loves to sink his psychotherapeutic teeth into. All his signature elements are there: snapshot, symbolic tableaux; precisely choreographed movements; long, silent moments; a slow build to an intense, murderous climax. The two central characters are excellently portrayed by calm, centered Patrick Kelly and beguiling, unpredictable Michelle Procopio. There are two other actors in the dimly lit space, one of whom only makes train sounds; the other serves as figurative physical link between the man and woman. Germani punctuates the action with jazzy sax playing, but the production is missing something crucial to the play: complicit, train-riding observers who see the brutality and look the other way, as the Adam-Eve, white-black cycle of enticement and entrapment continues and replays.
Meanwhile, on the high seas, Isabella is at the helm of “Wet.” The legendary pirate queen, bastard child of Neptune, has boarded a ship with her ‘crew’: an electrified girl, a tough-talking woman and a prissy cross-dresser. Three male sailors become their captives, captors, even lovers. But when the ship enters the horse latitudes, the windless area surrounding the Equator, nobody’s going anywhere. Written in the aftermath of 9/11, the play deals with war, domination, freedom, love and the potential for making a fresh start in a brave new world. The Moxie Theatre production is beautifully designed and directed, and the high-spirited Moxie gals – Jo Anne Glover, Liv Kellgren and Jennifer Eve Thorn — give outstanding performances. But the play is not as deeply, richly satisfying as its companion piece, the magnificent Dog Act. Liz Duffy Adams’ thought-provoking new work needs additional refinement, and more narrative arc.
Both these symbolic stories come from a place of personal and political pain. But only “Wet” is buoyed by the hope of a better future.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.