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American Stage’s ‘Dutchman’ makes history in St. Petersburg

Erica Sutherlin is the first Black female director on the mainstage in the company’s history.
St. Petersburg-based actor, writer and director Erica Sutherlin is directing "Dutchman" at American Stage. She is the first Black woman to direct a show at the theater company.
St. Petersburg-based actor, writer and director Erica Sutherlin is directing "Dutchman" at American Stage. She is the first Black woman to direct a show at the theater company. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 27

American Stage is presenting “Dutchman” for its last production of the season. And because it is being directed by Erica Sutherlin, the production makes history for American Stage as its first mainstage production directed by a Black woman.

Sutherlin said she is happy to have the opportunity, but she’s had many firsts in Tampa Bay’s theater scene. Still, it is a long time coming.

“The only way we can continue to evolve and move forward is if we continue to make those strides and diversify and include,” she said. “And somebody has to be the first one to do it.”

“Dutchman” was written in 1964 by African American playwright Amiri Baraka while he was still using his given name, LeRoi Jones. It explores issues of race and identity between Black and white people in America. Set on a subway car, the main action happens between a white woman and a Black man.

Before taking the helm as the show’s director, Sutherlin recently came to American Stage as its director of community engagement. Because of the play’s themes of racism, she planned community conversations that were held in June to discuss its topics, including an introduction to Baraka, the concept of forbidden fruit and the stereotypes of Black men in America. These were meant to help people understand the play once it opens, because people across communities were nervous about the visceral reaction to the show, Sutherlin said.

The show is under an hour with no intermission. It’s a one-act that is usually paired with other plays. So in an attempt to stretch it out without changing the script — which isn’t allowed — Sutherlin created pauses at the beginning and at a climactic moment.

“It’s a piece that’s written to incite and elicit strong emotional responses,” she said. “And it’s not a piece that gives you a break as you’re taking that emotional journey. It doesn’t do that. Once you get on this train, you’re on this train until it’s done.”

The title refers to the Dutch slave ships that made thousands of voyages across the Atlantic, as well as the lore of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that never finds port. The set incorporates elements of a slave ship with the subway car setting.

Sutherlin said people who have read the script comment on seeing the same issues from 1964 in 2022. But she believes continuing the conversations and continuing to make changes are the way forward, which is what she wants the takeaway to be.

“This play is not getting ready to teach you something you don’t already know,” she said. “This play is simply holding up a mirror to it. And then asking, ‘What are you going to do?’”

If you go

“Dutchman” opens July 1 and runs through July 31. Preview performances June 29-30 are pay-what-you-can at the door or $20 in advance. Opening night tickets are $75. Single tickets for all other performances are $45. American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.

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