A Murderous Message About Black and White

There are certain pivotal plays that make mighty noises in small rooms, and Dutchman, by the black activist LeRoi Jones—now known as Amiri Baraka—is famously one of them. At little more than 50 minutes in length, this furious 1964 prose poem has been revived in an excellent, troubling production at the tiny Cherry Lane Theatre downtown, and it would be a foolish—or patronizing—person who questioned its relevance today.

Dutchman is a rare example of a modern American play that made a shocking form of history. (The young Edward Albee was one of its original producers.) Nothing remotely like it had ever been seen on a New York stage before. Dutchman is about a beautiful, 30-year-old white girl who sets out to seduce a conventional-looking black man on the subway—an encounter that ends in devastating violence.

Its premiere, which sent shockwaves through New York—particularly white liberal New York—took place between tumultuous national events in the civil-rights movement: the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the rise of Malcolm X in 1965. Mr. Baraka, then an unknown playwright in the downtown bohemian scene, was inspired by the radical views of Malcolm X rather than the pacifism of Martin Luther King. (He still is.) Though his reputation since Dutchman has been tarnished by accusations of racist propaganda and anti-Semitism, Mr. Baraka’s revolutionary play must be allowed to speak for itself.

It remains an American masterpiece that still disturbs us to the core. Plays with murderous messages aren’t meant to be “balanced” and “fair,” and radically subversive playwrights like Mr. Baraka don’t necessarily have clean hands. His notorious play throws a bomb at an uncaring world. To be sure, there are those who now criticize Dutchman’s alleged misogyny and dated “sensualist blackness” (as a dissenting voice put it peculiarly in The Times last week). It’s as if to be black were somehow tactless and unacceptable, as if the articulate honesty and verve of the play’s transcendent language were too close to the bone.

Others see Dutchman’s uncompromising exposé of the war between black and white America as out of date. After all, we have Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State (and Colin Powell before her)—as the flinty 73-year-old Mr. Baraka himself pointed out sardonically during an audience discussion after a performance of Dutchman. As I see it, the abandonment of New Orleans is sufficient shameful evidence that for black Americans, the Promised Land has gone backward since the play had its first shattering impact.

Dutchman takes place in a steaming subway—“the flying underbelly of the city,” Mr. Baraka calls it—a metaphor for the subconscious. The short, violent drama could be a hot, sexy dream that turns into a nightmare.

Clay is the 20-year-old black man reading a magazine in his buttoned-up suit, who might be an anonymous Harvard graduate minding his own business. (Or a conformist trying to live a white man’s life with a veneer of respectability.) Lula is the older white woman in a summer dress who stops beside Clay’s subway seat and hangs languidly from the strap while eating an apple. She’s going to tempt and goad him into a lethal game of seduction.

“You think I want to pick you up,” she says to him eventually, “get you to take me somewhere and screw me, huh?”

“Is that the way I look?” he replies neutrally.

“You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That’s what. You look like you’ve been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea. You look like death eating a soda cracker.”

The first mention of death comes as a jolt, a warning. “I look like that?” Clay asks her, embarrassed and intrigued.

“Not all of it,” she replies laconically. “I also lie a lot. It helps me control the world.”

Mr. Baraka sees Lula as the spirit of America—tempting, self-interested, all-powerful, dangerous America. But she’s real enough in her confident, taunting superiority. “What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie?” she asks Clay unexpectedly. “Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard.”

“My grandfather was a night watchman,” he answers evenly.

“And who do you think you were? Who do you think you are now?” she demands to know. The questions go to the heart of the play. But Clay makes light of it: “Well, in college I thought I was Baudelaire. But I’ve slowed down since.”

“I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger,” she says next and laughs loudly. He appreciates the humor. “That’s right,” he replies, naming himself the black Baudelaire.

“My Christ.” she cries out cynically. “My Christ.” And asks him to “pretend the air is light and full of perfume.”

He sniffs at her blouse. “It is.”

And they, the citizens of America, will pretend they are free. “And that you are free of your own history,” Lula says as the first scene ends with a form of prayer and incantation. “And I am free of my history. We’ll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing along through the city’s entrails.”

DUTCHMAN IS A LACERATING PLAY about corroded black identity—Mr. Baraka’s “escaped nigger,” or the “middle-class fake white man” who crawled through the wire fence to the white side. It’s crucially about two painful American heritages, slavery and oppression. Neither the black victim nor white oppressor, Mr. Baraka is saying, has changed or will change.

In a ferocious outpouring, Clay finally snaps at being humiliated as a frightened “Uncle Tom” and threatens to rip Lula’s breasts off. What could she know about his “pure heart, the pumping black heart,” he demands to know. He could easily kill “all you soft idiots” who understand nothing but luxury. “Let me be! And let me be in the way that I want …. You fuck some black man, and right away, you’re an expert on black people,” he tells the white woman he calls the “great liberated whore.” “What a lotta shit that is. The only thing you know is that you come if he bangs you hard enough.”

Clay coolly considers the option of murder: “Crazy niggers turning their backs on sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane.” But he’d sooner stay insane—a compromised, coded fool who’s “safe with words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts, urging me to new conquests” in the white world.

At the same time, he warns white America not to preach its pragmatic, charitable Christian ways “to these niggers.” “[T]he great missionary heart will have triumphed,” Clay argues, uttering a primal curse, “and all of those ex-coons will be stand-up Western men, with eyes for clean hard useful lives, sober, pious and sane, and they’ll murder you. They’ll murder you, and have very rational explanations. Very much like your own.”

In the murdering game between Lula and Clay, one of them will surely have to die. And life will go on.

Dutchman has been effectively directed by Bill Duke. Clay is played by Dulé Hill, a fine stage natural making his debut in a play (he’s known for his starring roles on The West Wing and Psych). Jennifer Mudge is a loose and compelling Lula. In a memorable, bitterly ironic farewell, the elderly conductor (Paul Benjamin) performs a minstrelly soft-shoe shuffle on the train and greets another formally dressed young black man.

“Hey, brother!” the conductor says in a quick greeting.

A Murderous Message  About Black and White