By Elizabeth Higgins
Theatre is not a passive experience. Plays entertain, but they also elicit emotion, call to action, and impart lessons – that’s exactly what was accomplished by two senior projects presented by the drama program.
Dutchman, directed by Ayasha Sampson, and The Sinful Game: Terror in Salem, directed by Amanda Nicole Mendez premiered on October 23rd in the Lab Theatre at the Center for the Arts.
Dutchman, an Obie Award winning production written by Amiri Baraka in 1964, deals with the subject of racial tensions in America. But this play is not only about the country’s past. Ayasha Sampson made sure the audience remembered that by masterfully linking the events of the show to the present.
Before the play began, a powerful video reminded the audience that the civil rights movement isn’t over, and that the struggle for justice still continues. Haunting scenes from the protests against police brutality at Ferguson, MO and the death of Eric Garner – a tragic event that occurred in our own community –force us to face this fact.
In one of the most moving parts of the video, we see the faces of the victims of racism. The names we hear about on the news are not faceless statistics. They are human beings. They are teenagers, like Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride. They are children, like seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was shot in her own home during a police raid. When we look at these faces, we know it is our duty to ensure they aren’t forgotten.
This powerful wake up call was continued throughout the play. Dutchman is a complex and intriguing work; what seems to begin like a relatively ordinary subway ride is actually an allegory for race relations between black people and white people.
The two principal characters of the play are Clay, a young, intelligent, and well-dressed African American man and Lula, a seductive and unpredictable white woman. Daniela Favaloro did an excellent job portraying the erratic, unhinged Lula. She makes her seem sensual and exciting; the audience initially laughs at her antics and at Clay’s bewildered response.
She approaches Clay and offers him an apple: the quintessential symbol of temptation. It soon becomes apparent that she’s only manipulating him. Their interaction devolves into her making him feel insecure, calling him racist slurs and “Uncle Tom.” As she mocks his lifestyle, she becomes the embodiment of vicious racism.
Again, Favaloro handles this role expertly, portraying Lula’s over-the-top, malevolent glee as she dances throughout the subway car.
But Clay doesn’t passively listen to her taunting any longer. He tells her that she doesn’t know him at all. As a white woman, she doesn’t understand anything but luxury.
He says that black culture, music, and dance are only used to heal pain, keep anger at bay, and provide a distraction. He says that if he acted coldly and rationally, he would kill Lula, and all the white people he encounters.
Rogelio Douglas III’s performance is powerful, as Clay instantly changes from quiet and unassertive to vicious and angry. The audience, which had just been gawking at Lula’s obscene behavior, becomes shocked into silence when he slaps her.
His delivery of Clay’s monologue is spectacular and gripping. When he begins to raise his voice, his fury and bitterness are palpable.
When Clay’s rage begins to subside, he reveals that he doesn’t want to kill or fight with white people. He would rather remain ignorant of the situation.
But as he tries to leave the subway, all of the other passengers on the train surround him. In a shocking twist, Lula murders him, and she has them dispose of his body.
The play ends when another young African American man boards the train, and Lula offers him an apple.
It’s a never-ending subway ride of American racism. There’s a sense of sadness and hopelessness in the inevitability; everyone is doomed to act out the same parts again and again, until people are taught to break free from ignorance and prejudice.
But the lesson is not at all one of cynicism and resignation. Ayasha Sampson used Dutchman as a tool to expose injustice and raise awareness. She also showed people that suffering is a universal experience, and that people who are oppressed can combat their oppressors with solidarity. This truth can be witnessed in a particularly poignant example: Muslims in Palestine shared information with protesters in Ferguson about how to protect against tear gas.
The second show, The Sinful Game: Terror in Salem, is a unique twist on two theatrical traditions. A straight play is combined with a Broadway musical, as the production is based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the music from Jekyll and Hyde.
In another interesting, creative choice that added to the play’s authenticity, Mendez added a narrator, whose prologue and epilogue were based off of Miller’s notes, the notes of historian Mary Beth Norton, and the journal entries of the Salem Witch Trials written by Reverend John Hale.
Amanda Nicole Mendez was inspired to write this play after her trip to Salem, during which she researched the people upon whom Miller’s characters were based. She wanted to bring to light the story of the victims of senseless persecution.
Mendez’s song choice was superb. The play opens with the song “Façade,” which reveals that everyone is hiding behind a metaphorical mask, and that no one is who they seem to be. This highlights the fact that Salem’s religious leaders were corrupt, those who cried “witch” were wicked themselves, and those who were put on trial were innocent.
In another scene, the song “Dangerous Game” is used to explain the tempting, yet immoral relationship between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.
In her interactions with John, Sami Jo adds new dimensions to the character of Abigail. She portrays her twisted manipulation, as she threatens Betty (portrayed by Stephanie Gil) into to doing her bidding. She also conveys her desperation, fear, and possessiveness, as she takes extreme measures to get what she wants.
Emmanuel Rodriguez skillfully shows John Proctor’s moral dilemma as he decides confesses to his adultery to save his wife Elizabeth. His performance is equally captivating when he stands up to the hypocrisy of Salem’s leaders, and refuses to sign his name to lies.
Akilah Morris portrays Elizabeth Proctor as a strong, courageous, and thoroughly good woman. In a tragic scene of dramatic irony, she denies the fact that John slept with Abigail in court without knowing that he has already confessed, thus dooming him to hang. But her intentions show that, despite what John did to her, she still loves him deeply.
In the heartbreaking scene when John is to be hanged, the song “Lost in the Darkness” is sung as Elizabeth watches and sobs.
Another remarkable aspect of the show was Oscar Andrade’s portrayal of Reverend Hale when he realizes that the condemnation of innocents is evil and speaks up against Danforth, whose righteousness and terrifying authority were portrayed by Devon Phillip.
Like Dutchman, this play is not only a relic of the past. Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory for the persecution of communists during the Cold War Era. The message is simple, but crucial: beware of witch-hunts, in whatever form they may come.
Both shows were unique, riveting, and emotional experiences. They served as a testament to the immense talent of both of the directors, the production teams, the tech crew, and all of the actors involved.