Dual Perspectives on Dutch Masters – Catey Sullivan x Yasmin Mikhaiel

Chicago has no shortage of incredible femme critics and Rescripted is thrilled to introduce the perspectives of two of the most incisive women writing on Chicago theatre. Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel is a former alumni of The Key and writer and Windy City Times, Scapi Mag, and Chicago Reader among others. Catey Sullivan has been reviewing theatre since 1992. She writes for the Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader and Crain’s Chicago. Read their reviews on Jackalope Theatre’s Dutch Masters below.

Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel
The trauma of our ancestors passes through our bones and brains, impacting all generations whether we know it or not. Broadly speaking, this is intergenerational trauma. For Black folks, it’s also post-traumatic slave syndrome. It’s multigenerational oppression. Under the direction of Wardell Julius Clark at Jackalope Theatre, it’s Dutch Masters by Greg Keller.

Hidden away in Jackalope’s Broadway Armory, we find ourselves on the train in 1992 New York. But the trip from Rockefeller Center to 145th has never felt so long. Two boys, one white and one Black, share a train car. Steve (Sam Boeck) is seated, minding his own business. Eric (Patrick Agada) paces the aisle, pausing every so often, attempting to make conversation. Steve finds his demeanor and directness unsettling, and stumbles over his answers, not wanting to overshare. It’s clear something binds these boys together, but it takes a blunt to find clarity.

Keller’s masterful examination of race and anger in America is timeless, save for the lack of cell phones. When paired with Clark’s skillful eye for tension and release, this two-hander sucks the air out of the room in all the best ways. Twist after agonizing twist comes fast as the respective pasts of the characters in front of us are crushingly illuminated.

In one of the most badass scenic transitions of the season (or my theatergoing life), the worlds of Steve and Eric are forever changed. It’s clear how much trust and intention must go into crafting the relationship between our leading men. As Steve, Boeck plays innocent and ignorant. He reeks of privilege, almost ironically, until juxtaposed with the realness, hardness of Eric. Agada is a master of levels, controlling his energy and funneling anger into intention. Together, this pair is enthralling, their stories exhausting.

Tech really shines in this production, too. Lights (Simean Carpenter) have their own personality, breaking usual patterns. There’s a beautiful sequence of time passing that instills a real sense of urgency as one character waits for the other. When in a park, the soundscape (Steve Labedz) is a delicate touch, a foundation supporting internal upheaval. And in its absence, Clark stages silence and anxiety in a way that makes your skin crawl.

Nothing here is easy to digest—and that’s good. This is the type of work Chicago needs, that amplifies human dignity and the importance of witnessing. We all have stories, and there is a certain vulnerability in sharing them, deciding who is “good people”. In Dutch Masters, the hard questions concerning race and unconscious bias are exposed. It’s tender and raw and maddening, but oh so necessary.

Catey Sullivan
“I got you.” The superficially reassuring phrase comes up three times within the first 10 or so minutes of Greg Keller’s compact, explosive drama Dutch Masters. The speaker is Eric, a 20something African-American riding the subway in 1992 New York City. He’s talking to Steve, a white guy who’s roughly the same age. The three words are deceptively simple and completely unnerving. Steve is clearly worried about getting robbed. Eric just is trying to put Steve at ease. Except maybe that isn’t what’s happening at all.

Maybe you’ll hear an almost imperceptible threat to Eric’s “I got you.” Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll be forced to examine your assumptions. Why, after all, would anyone conclude that Eric is a menace rather than a young man who simply isn’t good at reading social cues? Keller clears things up eventually in a hair-raising psychological thriller that forces the audience to grapple with its own perceptions of race.

The first few scenes of Dutch Masters are fraught with uneasy tension, but Keller is just getting started. In 85 minutes, he packs both a gripping mystery and a harrowing commentary on 400 years of racism. Under Wardell Julius Clark’s laser-precise direction, the connection running from the 17th century slave trade to the play’s 1992 setting is unmistakable. The repercussions from the former reverberate through the latter with the spine-jarring, relentless monotony of the subway’s lurching progress.

As Keller vividly illustrates in the scene that gives the piece it’s title, that’s a connection Eric has felt every day of his life and that Steve is blissfully oblivious to. The two young men are sharing a spliff rolled into a Dutch Masters cigar. Eric (Patrick Agada) sees the cigar box cover and offers a discourse on the 17th century Dutch slave trade. Steve (Sam Boeck) insists Dutch Masters refers to famous painters.

As the action moves from the subway to a park to Eric’s apartment, Keller parses out revelations with the pacing of a master. Eric and Steve both are and are not strangers to each other (yes, that’s possible). Yet even after their connection is clear, the twists keep coming. Clark keeps tightening them, often in a way you don’t see coming until you’re in the vise.

At one point, Steve and Eric stand within inches of each other in a face-off that evokes Lamon Reccord’s defiant stare-downs with Chicago cops during 2015 protests of Laquan McDonald murder. That is surely no coincidence. “Dutch Masters” references the deaths of Yusef Hawkins (1989), Michael Stewart (1983), Michael Griffith (1986) and Willie Turks(1982), all African-American men who died after racially-motivated attacks or after incurring injuries while in police custody. It’s a blistering moment when you can all but feel hear an endless scream for justice.

As Eric, Agada boils with the kind of fury that peels down to raw, inconsolable sorrow. It’s a nuanced performance, the kind where a smile says one thing, the eyes above it something entirely different.

Boeck is also fantastic. Steve’s initial decision to derail his plans and join Eric for a smoke seems unlikely at first. It isn’t, as both Keller’s dialogue and Boeck’s performance make clear. Steve is a kid who revels in rap music, worships black athletes and cherishes action figures of Lando Calrissian. More than anything, he wants to be cool like his idols, a part of the culture he’s appropriated. Eric offers him both things. Of course Steve follows him.

Clark’s design team does indispensable work. Ryan Emens’ set design includes a remarkable transition from subway to apartment that is engulfing and low-key terrifying. Steve Labedz’s sound – the garbled subway stop announcements that make it impossible to know exactly where you are, the metronomic tick-tock of a grandfather clock – increase the claustrophobic urgency of the piece. Simean Carpenter’s lights blink and spark, often making everything look weirdly out of joint. Nova Grayson Casillo’s props are notable, a 1992 Atari system and a vaguely out-of-place, over-sized vase playing crucial roles.

Keller has achieved something fierce with Dutch Masters.  It’s a bruising, mano-a-mano showdown that sometimes evokes the tradition of Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” or Sam Shepard’s “True West.” It also lays bare the violence of privilege and theft, from 1600s slave trade through 1990s cultural appropriation. “Dutch Masters” ends where it began, in 1992. The issues it raises? No end in sight.

Dutch Masters runs at the Jackalope Theatre Armory through March 6th.

Bias Alert: Regina Victor occasionally directs readings of new works at the Frontier Space.

CAST
Patrick Agada (Eric)
Sam Boeck (Steve)

CREATIVE
Greg Keller (playwright)
Wardell J. Clark (director)
Ryan Emens (scenic designer)
Christine Pascual (costume designer)
Simean Carpenter (lighting designer)
Nova Casillo (props designer)
Steve Labedz (sound designer)
Rachel Flescher (intimacy/violence designer)
Catherine Miller (casting director)
Monet Felton (asst. director)
JC Widman (stage manager)
Danielle Stack* (production manager).

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