An Audience Member’s Love Letter to ‘Dutch Masters’
Photo Credit: Graphic by Andrea Klohn
One of my favorite phrases, especially in a heavy theater week, is “90 minutes, no intermission.” Usually that means the show you’re about to see is brief enough that you can breathe through it. Don’t be fooled — this is not one of those shows.
Dutch Masters, presented by Jackalope Theatre, is a 90 minute master class.
Your teachers for those 90 minutes are Patrick Agada and Sam Boeck. They are instructed by director Wardell Julius Clark. You are their student. You feel the tension that arose when a teacher announced “pop quiz!” in grade school on a topic you weren’t prepared for. That ceaseless tension that doesn’t let up until you stand, walk out of class and have a good cry.
THAT is Dutch Masters in a nutshell.
The intense two-hander, set in 1992 NYC, begins as an encounter on an empty D train. Steve (Boeck) is riding to somewhere (his story changes several times) while reading a book. Eric (Agada) asks Steve a series of questions. Thus begins your journey with them. Their banter is hilarious, at times, and unnerving at other times. A dichotomy of discomfort and familiarity emerges and it is astounding to see.
In all the ways the two men are different, Eric is black and Steve is white for instance, there are several ways in which they are connected. Even in those connections they find how different life can be and show audiences why we need empathy and understanding.
Moreover it teaches us to be better humans.
Dutch Masters doesn’t need to scream anything from the rooftops. Its stage voice is plenty loud, plenty resilient and plenty powerful.
When I walked out of the Armory space I was bereft of what to say. I told my friend Kevin that my neck hurt from sitting so still. I got home and tearily gushed to my husband in utter nonsense about what I’d just experienced. Suddenly I was a character in “The Sims” speaking Simlish and only making sense to myself.
This play ignited something in me. Something that is always there but needed a new spark. We need to be better to one another. We need to listen, learn and grow together. We can’t get so caught up in our own lives that we stop paying attention to the lives of others.
We need to do better.
Greg Keller’s masterful script is the perfect subject for a study on “issue” plays. Keller succinctly examines issues of class and race without centering the play squarely on the issues. This is a play about people. It is driven by their humanity, their history and their hearts. That is what makes it so powerful.
That is also what makes it so profoundly personal.
Whenever tensions rose in the show and Agada’s emotions ran high I was suddenly seeing him as someone I knew—my six-year high school/college boyfriend. As a biracial couple there was a lot of learning, empathy and acceptance that had to be done. In those six years I learned a great deal about myself and the world around me. There were many times in the course of that relationship when I calmed my partner’s anger. An anger I saw reflected back at me through Agada’s earth shattering performance.
Even now I feel the pin pricking of tears as I think on the experience of watching Dutch Masters unfold. (Chicago theater is really changing this theatergoer’s never-cry way of life)
Gus Menary (Jackalope artistic director) has a wonderful note in the front of the program that perfectly sums up what audiences need to know going in. You don’t need to know the many reveals Keller has sewn into the fabric of this play. You don’t need to know where the journey takes Steve and Eric.
What you need to know is yourself. How you fit into humanity. How you interact with the world.
Once you know those things you have all you need for the journey. Now all you have to do is take it.
“Dutch Masters” playing now through April 5th, jackalopetheatre.org.