This weekend, the Center for Theatre Arts will present the third installment of their Black Box Season, with performances of The Dutchman. The show is directed by Benjamin Shiffrin ’03. In the middle of his busy tech rehearsal week, I was able to catch Shiffrin and pin him down long enough for an interview.
The Dutchman was written by LeRoi Jones in the early 1960’s. The plot consists of two subway riders, Lula and Clay. In the original production, Lula is a white hippie, and Clay is a black man. But in Shiffrin’s version, Lula (Kristina Watkins ’03) is more modern white woman, and Clay (Fatima Jibril ’01) is played as a black woman. The sole action of the play consists of their conversation on a subway. As the plot unfolds, Lula tries to seduce Clay, and issues of race are brought to light.
Shiffrin categorizes The Dutchman as a character driven drama. When it was originally produced, the show was put on in white theatres because black theatres were concerned about controversy. It was very successful, even though it was intended to offend white audiences.
Shiffrin first read the play in Jeremy Lopez’s freshman writing seminar. Shriffrin notes, “It’s a pretty intense play, that requires a lot from the reader. The text is fairly realistic, but what actually goes on is sort of outlandish. It’s not what you expect, there are a lot of surprises.”
The play itself was ideal for a Black Box production. When Dutchman was written, it was intended for theatres with poor funding. The Black Box is perfectly designed to host such shows, not to house big shows like Amadeus or A View from the Bridge. Shiffrin joked, “It is rather simple, technically speaking. There are no helicopters landing on the stage, but I’d never say anything nasty about those plays,” he chuckled, poking fun at the recently closed Miss Saigon.
Another perk of The Dutchman is that it gives a play the chance to increase minority representation at the CTA, which doesn’t happen very often. “This seemed like the ideal play to do. It’s an angry little play, but very well formed and very eloquent. The play concentrates on race. In the end, it leaves the audience with the idea that race relations, at best, only look good. There is a lot of rage on both sides,” Shiffrin added.
The Black Box series is intended to give students the chance to be directors, designers, and actors. The shows put on there have a limited amount of rehearsal time, and limited funding. With The Dutchman clocking in at about thirty minutes, it was a good match. Previous Black Box shows this season included The Maids and The Knave of Hearts, written and directed by Alan Rosenberg ’01. Fitting Rooms will round off the Black Box season this April.
Shiffrin himself is no stranger to the many aspects of Cornell theatre. He acted in the Black Box production of The Knave of Hearts, and in the mainstage shows The Three Sisters and Much Ado About Nothing. He served as assistant director for Vital Signs, and has directed several skits as part of David Feldshuh’s directing class. But his Cornell debut came in Upstage Left’s production of Noises Off, where he actually played the character of the frustrated director, Lloyd. But I don’t think this is life imitating art with The Dutchman.