Penumbra stages two plays born of the Black Power movement

Dutchman and The Owl Answers: tales of America’s ‘cultural hypocrisy’

 Austene Van plays the lead in Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers directed by Talvin Wilks
Austene Van plays the lead in Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers directed by Talvin Wilks

Penumbra Theater has long been a home for promoting and showcasing plays from the Black Arts Movement Era in the Twin Cities. But what makes this month at the Penumbra so unusual is their roster.

Viewers will be treated to two plays in one evening: Dutchman by LeRoi Jones’ (later Amiri Baraka), directed by Penumbra’s own Lou Bellamy, opens the first half of the evening, followed by Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers, directed by Talvin Wilks, which closes the set.

Together, these one-act plays — provocative, visually metaphorical and emotionally turbulent — harken back to the early 1960s and tell a story that, until now for the first time, have not been allowed to be narrated in one space.

“[This is] is the only place where this can happen,” said director Bellamy, stressing the uniqueness of Penumbra’s choices. “It is important that we regard these plays in the context of their time,” Bellamy continued. “As an artistic expression of the budding Black Power movement, these avant-garde plays are not to be divorced from the political climate out of which they were born.”

Indeed, nods to the legacy of the Black Arts and Black Power era are more than simply historical reminders; they are relevant to today as well. Not only was “Penumbra …born out of this cultural moment,” continued Bellamy, but “to produce Dutchman in 2016 is to acknowledge the vulnerability of Black men in America still.

“The play reveals a vicious cycle, one that claims Black bodies — any Black body — in its insatiable hunger.” And in a similar vein, director Wilks noted the plays’ uncanny ability to expose America’s “cultural hypocrisy that we have fought and continue to fight.”

If these themes strike a familiar, indeed sensitive emotional chord today, it is not by accident. The producers of the plays are quick to assert the connections between the events of our troubled present and our unfinished past. One need only witness the nightly news in the backdrop of a vibrant Black Lives Matter movement roiling our nation’s attention and consciousness.

The evening’s opening night audience was striking for its diversity not only along racial, ethnic and gender lines, but also in terms of age as well, the millennial generation being well represented.

For Kameena Anderson, a millennial herself, it was her first exposure to the works of these iconic figures, but she quickly expressed her approval of them afterwards: “Oh, I loved it. But it’s a lot to think about. I definitely wanna read both plays so I can digest it more. And I would love to see it again.”

Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston admitted his familiarity with Baraka’s Dutchman, noting his experience with viewing various interpretations of it on stage at other venues. Yet Preston was quick to affirm their relevance for today’s troubled times.

“I would love for them to be dated,” Preston said. “I’d love for the Baraka to be dated. I’d love for the Adrienne Kennedy to be dated, because then they would just be period pieces. But in many ways, this is just continuing to resonate.”

Actors Nathan Barlow (Clay) and Kate Guentzel (Lula) in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman directed by Lou Bellamy
Actors Nathan Barlow (Clay) and Kate Guentzel (Lula) in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman directed by Lou Bellamy

Structurally speaking, both Dutchman and The Owl Answers are both difficult plays to describe, let alone view. As both Sarah and Lou Bellamy cautioned in their introduction to the plays, “Their relevance today should feel haunting and unsettling — hopefully this production will prompt sincere consideration of the racial climate in which we find ourselves today,” as stated in the plays’ study guide.

And addressing America’s persistent racial afflictions, whether ensconced on a New York subway car where a seemingly benign interaction between a Black male and White female passenger quickly spirals out of hand (Dutchman), or shifting and re-shifting to a metaphorical tale of a bi-racial young woman daring to lay claim to her European ancestry, despite what secrets and resistance lie in store for her (The Owl Answers), are what these mid-20th century tales have in store for 21st century viewers.

However, despite the visual frenzy on display, the performances were still tethered to a body politic and how it is manifested both personally and socially. In speaking of The Owl Answers, Wilks addressed both plays when he remarked, “[They are] meant to be surreal, fantastic, and hallucinatory, [they are] also meant to be human.”

Yet the effort for humanization comes at terrible prices — spiritually, psychologically, even mortally. Audience member Clarence White was quick to agree, adding rather trenchantly, “Both pieces seemed to speak about the place that the ‘Negro’ is supposed to have in society — that we’ve been assigned to. And if we have to, we will take your life. And no one will care.”

One interesting observation was from audience member Julia Altenberg, a professional actor herself in the Twin Cities, in response to the two protagonists in Baraka’s Dutchman. Altenberg, who is herself Jewish, noted the interconnectedness of resistance and oppression between her own cultural heritage and the freedom struggles of African Americans, which she witnessed between the conflict of the play’s central characters, Clay and Lulu — a Black man and a White woman (whom Clay accuses of being secretly Jewish).

The play never explicitly identifies Lulu’s ethnic identity, but critics have long drawn parallels between when the play was written and Baraka’s own failed marriage to a White Jewish woman during this period, adding further richness to a tale of two historically disenfranchised groups and their own complex relationships with one another.

“People keep separating them,” said Altenberg on Black and Jewish relations, “like they can’t be one.” In reconsidering Lulu again she added, “Maybe that’s me up there?”

Perhaps in the end, these brilliant, beautiful, yet dangerous plays are not meant to answer anything. Instead, like art, perhaps they are meant only to arouse questions, spur conversation, prompt introspection, and bear witness to a fragile democracy at peril. In the words of Lou Bellamy, the plays “cultivate a desire for justice.”


Wilt Hodges welcomes reader comments to