FringeArts Review: Azuka Theatre’s Dutch Masters

If you're looking for a daring take on the state of American race relations, this is it.

Ah, 1992. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Everyone who was anyone was down with O.P.P. (best), George H.W. Bush was president (worst), and LA was erupting in riots over the Rodney King verdict (Sublime). Against this backdrop, playwright Greg Keller throws us into a subway car careening toward the Bronx in Mayor David N. Dinkins’ New York City. From there, the hope and reality of racial progress converge, leaving the play’s protagonists wondering just where that leaves them. And, in some sense, the audience is left with the same feeling.

Running as part of this year’s FringeArts festival (and just extended), Azuka Theatre’s production of Dutch Masters—the Philadelphia premiere—could not have come along at a more fraught time. In a sociopolitical climate shaken by the death of Trayvon Martin and the never-ending stop-and-frisk debate, and locally by the furor around “Being White in Philly” and Riley Cooper’s racially charged aggression, Azuka chose a banner year to take on the topic of race. Based on Saturday night’s performance, Azuka’s two-man show at the Off-Broad Street Theater is more than worth checking out.

NYC youths Eric (the black guy) and Steve (the white guy), apparent strangers at the time, awkwardly strike up a conversation on a subway car one summer day. The pair, having bonded over rap lyrics and good, old-fashioned smack talk, decide to step out for a blunt, leading to an extremely awkward drug interaction. As the conversation flows, though, it becomes apparent that Eric has sought out Steve for a reason. That reason is revealed—and violently so—back at his Bronx apartment, post-smoke, where unlikely circumstances, inequality and society’s tacit racism collide.

Brandon Pierce as Eric expertly darts between genuine emotion, faux fiery anger and mischievous sarcasm directed at Dalton’s classic white dude Steve. As the character driving the play’s action, Pierce’s Eric is disingenuous with Steve, but constantly in a “for your own good” tone, adding a sage-like subtext to his actions—albeit from beneath a Knicks cap. His comedic and dramatic timing, paired with subtle, pained reactions, forge an immediate connection with the audience. Ultimately, though, it is the authenticity with which Pierce fires Eric’s most bitter, pained lines–peppered between ’90s rap stanzas and clever goofs–that serves as the emotional center of the play.

Brendan Dalton is similarly impressive as Steve, always walking the line between opening up and not wanting to say the wrong thing—and thus looking like a peckerwood whiteboy around a member of the race his character idolizes in pop culture. Maybe it was my front-row seat, but at points you could see Steve’s ass clench with awkwardness in Eric’s presence, his own sense of cool plummeting with each syllable. Dalton nails the aloof, “non-racist” white dude character, slack-jawed and largely speechless (or stammering) in the face of Eric’s demands for honesty. Dalton manages to stand his own during Pierce’s tirades, diving silently from elation to crushing guilt, often without ever saying a word.

By the end of the play, the audience comes to understand the “raw deal” brokered between Steve’s and Eric’s cultures, families and personal interactions. The same cannot be said for Steve, and thus no resolution can be reached. Eric unleashes anger built up over years of neglect and abuse, while Steve is left confused and wondering. For Steve, the message conveyed somewhere along the way from the subway to the Bronx was missed, and in many ways, never had a chance of being received. Now, though, the characters would be in their 40s. We can only wonder: Would the message have eventually landed for Steve?

As for us, we see the play end and go back out into the world. Fortunately, our futures are similarly unwritten.

Through September 29
Tickets: $20 to $25

Other FringeArts Reviews
Gunnar Montana’s Basement Is Some Crazy Shit
My Kids Liked “Everything” About A Mystery?
Joan of Arc, Betrayed: What the Fringe Should Be
EgoPo’s The Doll’s House Is Not Fit For Human Consumption
Renegade Theater Company’s Bathtub Moby Dick