By Jean Sidden
It is wonderful to have Amiri Baraka’s powerful play, Dutchman, produced. The play was written in 1964 under Baraka’s former name, LeRoi Jones. He would change his name soon after and move uptown to Harlem to start his Black Arts Theatre/School. Baraka passed away in 2014 leaving behind a rich literary legacy. Dutchman is an American classic and is studied as such in university theatre programs but there aren’t many of its students who are fortunate enough to see a production. To have the current revival, at the Castillo Theatre on 42nd Street, is a gift. Who could be better suited to produce the play than The New Federal Theatre, founded by the legendary Woodie King, Jr., who is the revival’s director? The play is part of The New Federal Theatre’s season of Baraka’s work produced in honor of his important legacy. It is that dedication to honor Baraka that complicates this production of Dutchman.
Clay (Michael Alcide) boards the subway and soon realizes someone is looking through the subway window at him from the platform. It is a woman who eventually enters the car eating an apple. She is Lula (Ryan Jillian Kilpatrick) and she immediately confronts Clay, offers him an apple and pulls him into a highly charged racial and sexual power struggle. Lula is flirtatious with Clay and then backs off, she teases him and insults his middle class blackness by pointing out how “white” he is, how dull, how serious. For a while Clay hangs in and plays along with Lula. She escalates her verbal assault farther and farther, ends up calling him a series of racial stereotypes (“liver-lipped white man;” “Uncle Thomas Woolly-Head”), and solicits the participation of other passengers who have mysteriously entered the subway car. Eventually the scene explodes and Clay erupts in a tirade at Lula, finally shutting her up. When he calms and prepares to leave Lula stabs him to death and orders the other passengers to throw him off the train. In a few moments another young black man enters the subway car and Lula begins again, offering him an apple.
The play is a nod to the legend of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that is doomed to wander the seas never coming to port. Lula is a demon on this ghost subway doomed to repeat her killings again and again on a train that never arrives at its destination. The title is also a reference to the Dutch West Indies Company, for which The Flying Dutchman was a flagship and transporter of slaves. In this eerie setting Baraka’s language soars. There is absolutely nothing left unsaid; nothing left undone and the torment drives Clay to rage and abuse, setting up his own death by white authority.
Both Alcide and Kilpatrick are very strong actors. Kilpatrick is deadly precise in her balance between Lula as seductress and Lula as cold executioner. It takes courage to tackle Lula and Kilpatrick doesn’t hold back. Alcide is extremely likeable as Clay though he comes across as a little too eager to fall for Kilpatrick’s Lula too early on in the story. This may be partially due to a confusing casting choice.
Lula is a character written to be a white woman. She is being played in Woodie King’s production by Ryan Jillian Kilpatrick who is black. Kilpatrick is wearing a white mask for the entire play so half her face is obscured. Several of the train’s other passengers are wearing masks as well. It is perplexing why the mask is left on Kilpatrick unless it’s there to create the illusion she is white. Her facial expressions are covered and that is a disservice to the actor. Whatever the reason, not casting a white actress in the role removes an entire level of meaning from the play. Having a white woman boldly accost a black man sets up a vastly different dynamic between Clay and Lula. Baraka wrote the play knowing full well the complexity of that relationship. Casting a black actress in the role also causes large blocks of Baraka’s text to make no sense unless the director honestly thought the mask, and a blonde wig, would magically cause the audience to believe Kilpatrick is white. Again, there is absolutely nothing lacking in Kilpatrick’s performance. However, it’s worth it to point out that other revivals of Dutchman produced in the last ten years were done so with casting that respected Baraka’s choice .
Baraka’s language and the sharp focus of the play’s structure make the production work from a narrative standpoint. Nonetheless, for the sake of integrity, if The New Federal Theatre’s intention is to honor the legacy of Amiri Baraka the least they could do is produce his plays as he wrote them.
Dutchman – Written by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Directed by Woody King, Jr.
WITH: Michael Alcide (Clay), Ryan Jillian Kilpatrick (Lula), Fernand Auguste (Ghost Subway Rider), Chima Chikazunga (Ghost Subway Rider, Young Man), Darren Jerome Lamb (Ghost Subway Rider/Conductor), Cherith Scott (Negro Subway Rider), Steven Palmore (Negro Subway Rider.
Scenic Design by Chris Cumberbatch, Lighting Designer by Antoinette Tynes , Costume Design by Carolyn Adams, Sound and Projections by Bill Toles, Technical Direction by Anthony Davidson, Masks by Ryan J. Kilpatrick, Publicist: David Gersten. The New Federal Theatre in association with Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street from February 5 – March 8, 2015. Running time 75 minutes, no intermission.