A culturally appropriate family

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It's 1992. We're on the 1 train in midtown headed for the Bronx. Remember those orange and yellow molded seats? Dinkins is Mayor so "Stop and Frisk" and "Broken Windows" are still in the future. The city, and the subway, has a bit of an edge. Steve, who's 18 and white, is headed to his drawing class. He's trying to keep his head down and his nose clean. Eric, who's 19 and black, is regaling his homies with the story of someone getting a Timberland to the face.

That's when he spies Steve.

That's the setup for Greg Keller's play Dutch Masters at Rogue Machine Theater.

From the moment Eric lays his eyes on Steve, the play's dramatic engine and our curiosity catches fire. What's clear is Eric has plans for Steve. What those plans are is something of a mystery. At first it seems like maybe he's just playing him - the way a cat taunts it's prey. He starts asking him questions: "What you reading?" "Where you going?" "You in school?" There's clearly a bit of intimidation and Steve misses his stop and finds himself headed for 145th Street. Where, oddly, Eric suggests the two go smoke a blunt. Eric is up to something more complex than a simple mugging. He's looking for something far more dear than Steve's wallet and we spend the play's 75 minutes discovering what's brought these two young men together.

One of the rare pleasures in Los Angeles theater is when a company's plays speak to one another, when you have a sense of a larger artistic vision and plan. Given the frantic scramble and lack of leadership, LA's theater's too often resemble a grab bag of plays: each one may have it's merits but the sum is not greater than the parts.

What's exciting about Dutch Masters, beyond the stellar acting, taut direction and compelling script, is that it's in dialogue with Rogue Machine's last play Honky. Both are tales of cultural appropriation and it's profound costs. Honky looked at a shoe company that found tremendous marketing success the moment a black kid was killed for one of it's sneakers. Comedic with a big cast, it looked at corporate racism and how we co-opt inner-city authenticity and package it and mark it up for the suburbs.

Dutch Masters is treading the same territory but in a much more personal and intimate way. It, too, is a play about cultural appropriation but the focus is not the company but ultimately the family. What's being borrowed? What's being stolen? Who is paying the price? Those are the questions that profoundly resonate at the end of Dutch Masters.

Together, Dutch Masters and Honky are taking Rogue Machine's audience on a deeper journey. Here's a company offering a commitment both to its talented artists and also it's audience. There's a reward for coming back to the theater: that's how to build an audience.

Don't worry, if you missed Honky, Dutch Masters is a powerful piece of theater on it's own that you shouldn't miss.

Dutch Masters plays at the Rogue Machine Theater in Hollywood through October 16.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW Theater Newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

For the Web: 75 minutes without an intermission

Photo by John Perrin Flynn