Dutchman, written in 1964 by the late, great Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) would be easier to understand and stomach if we could walk away at the end shaking our heads and muttering, “crazy white lady” and adding, as Baraka wrote, “ You fuck some black man, and right away you’re an expert on black people”. But Dutchman is not about race and sex and the attraction to the Other. It is about the pervasive, omnipresent evil in the idea that race provides superior or inferior qualities to individuals, and therefore some should control others. The story is told as a dance between a black man and a white woman, strangers in a subway car. The woman leads, enticing with an apple, as in the original dance between woman and man. She already has the knowledge (if you can call it knowledge) that she is better than the man. Not by virtue of virtue, but by virtue of of race, color, and continent of origin.
This production of Dutchman is wisely holding talk back sessions after every performance. During the talk back on May 2nd a woman audience member asked, “Why doesn’t Clay (Sharif Atkins) see how crazy Lula (Ambien Mitchell) is and get off the train?” Ty Jones, Producing Artistic Director, replied that we should imagine Lula is not a woman, but America. Baraka’s Lula is America. She is America then, 1964, and America now, 2014. This production brilliantly brings that home at the very end of the play with a simple costume change made by Sharif Atkins, entering now as a new character, or is he? Since, if Lula is America, then Clay is every black American: man, woman and child, and the face Lula sees has no meaning to her. For all she sees is an opportunity to take control, take advantage, run over, steal from, keep down, keep back, intimidate, berate, lie to, invite and then un-invite, promise with fingers crossed behind her back, fuck and fuck over, kill or be killed.
Clay and Lula are complicated characters emotionally and intellectually. Both Atkins and Mitchell portray the complexities of their characters with great understanding and restraint. The language of Dutchman is also complicated emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes movingly poetic and sometimes brilliantly analytical. Again Atkins and Mitchell deliver both tones beautifully, although there are moments in Mitchell’s longer monologues that could have played up the poetry. Atkins’ closing speech is strong and piercing, avoiding preaching like a sermon on the mount, to instead force us to bear witness to an unimaginable collective memory and pain. Mitchell’s physical sensuality has power in her larger moves, but needs a little more build to a climax. Her wiggling, that reads as auto-eroticism, is a brilliant choice and works at first, but then becomes repetitive and feels one-note.
The Swaders’ subway set is appropriately austere, removing any typical subway distractions, such as advertisements and graffiti. The set provides beautifully for the actors physical life, allowing them to interact with realistic subway poles and uncomfortable straight backed pews. The sound (Sluyter) and lighting (Edwards) design complete the gritty tableau. We are witness to a horrific story, unfolding in a NYC subway “in the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole wide world is fast asleep” (Bob Hilliard).
There is a premise in Dutchman that has haunted me since 1964. That great art exists because the artist needs metaphor to express their rage and hate and pain, but if that artist could just murder, one or many, of their tormentors, than that art would not have needed to be created. We are blessed that Amiri Baraka did not murder one or many of us (white Americans) and then not have needed to create Dutchman.
Dutchman written by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka); directed by Carl Cofield
WITH: Sharif Atkins, Ambien Mitchell, Lorenzo Scott
Sets, Christopher and Justin Swader; lighting design, Alan C. Edwards; costume design, Rachel Dozier-Ezell; sound design, Eric Sluyter; technical director, Nabii Faison; production manager, Rachael Harris; stage manager, Ralph Stan Lee
The National Black Theatre and The Classical Theatre of Harlem co-production; producing director, Ty Jones; managing director, David Roberts. National Black Theatre 2013 5th Ave. Performances run through May 23rd and can be purchased online at www.nationalblacktheatre.org or by calling (212) 722-3800.