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Two one-acts take Penumbra to a revealing, unsettling place

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Nathan Barlow and Kate Guentzel star in Amiri Baraka's one-act play "The Dutchman." Set in a ghostly subway car, they embark on a dangerous flirtation that is a metaphor for race relations.
Courtesy of Allen Weeks

This week Penumbra Theatre opens its run of "The Dutchman" and "The Owl Answers," two surreal one-acts that delve into race relations, sexual politics and biracial identity. In many ways, the plays remain as challenging — and revealing — as when they were written 50 years ago.

In "The Dutchman," a beautiful white woman boards a subway car and sits down next to a buttoned-down young black man, and begins a flirtation. Over the next hour the conversation evolves into a tense psychological roller coaster ride, as the woman alternately seduces and mocks the young man. 

Written by Amiri Baraka at the dawn of the Black Arts Movement, the two characters are metaphors for their respective races. Director Lou Bellamy explained that the woman represents the evil within the dominant white society.

"You can deal with evil when it's ugly and sweaty and mean, but this is an attractive kind of evil — she calls as a siren, almost, to this young black male," he said. "Sex is always interesting, especially forbidden sex. And that is a lot of what's going on in this play."

The name of the play, "The Dutchman," evokes the legend of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans forever — just as these two characters appear destined to repeat this dance forever. 

Penumbra Theatre has paired Baraka's play with an even more surreal work in the second half, Adrienne Kennedy's "The Owl Answers." Bellamy said that to his knowledge, it's the first time the two plays have been presented side by side. 

"The Black Arts Movement, out of which both these plays sort of sprang, had its own issues inside of the movement," he said. "There was a bit of misogyny ... so a female black playwright and a male black playwright were very seldom thrown into contestation with each other."

In "The Owl Answers," a young woman of mixed race searches to understand why she can't claim her white heritage.

Talvin Wilkes, who directs "The Owl Answers," said that racial oppression and segregation are a form of madness, and what Adrienne Kennedy depicts in her surreal play is how that madness leads to one woman's psychological break.

She's berated by Chaucer, Shakespeare and William the Conqueror. What appears at first to be a subway car transforms into a cage upon which perches an owl. 

Austene Van is Clara Passmore
Austene Van is Clara Passmore in Adrienne Kennedy's "The Owl Answers," a surreal exploration of racial identity and the psychological madness of oppression.
Courtesy Allen Weeks

"Suddenly all of these ideas can take on the monstrous hallucinatory phantasmagorical idea of what a kind of madness can be," Wilkes said.

Lou Bellamy cautioned that these two plays are powerful, especially when paired with one another.

"Many of the dark skeletons that exist in all of us will be exposed here," he said. "When an audience walks in to these two plays, they're on thin ice. And they should know that. This is not going to be your happy little walk in the park."

Yet amid the darkness there's humor and beauty, Bellamy said, adding that it's the sort of experience one gets only in live theater.

"The Dutchman" and "The Owl Answers" run through March 27 at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.