I wonder what they’d make of “Dutchman” in Brooklyn.
Playing this weekend at the Yale Cabaret, Amiri Baraka’s play makes mincemeat of the ironies we coyly use to talk about race. And fierce direction by Katherine McGerr DRA ’14 touches a modern nerve. It’s hard to imagine the 1964 script wasn’t intended to shatter the false securities of our ambivalently post-racial era, when it’s cool to subvert the last few decades’ political correctness so gingerly through our hipster ironies. But “Dutchman” is also far from PC—it rails precisely against mealy-mouthed racial niceties of any kind.
On a sparely set metro that the play never leaves, a black man sits reading a book. Smartly dressed, with khakis, a white dress shirt and tie, he looks up at a white Lolita in a skimpy summer dress and bug-eyed sunglasses strutting into view. She cuts a flirty figure, clearly, and in due time she’ll cast herself as the fast-talking-stripper-smartass to his baby fat and twinkle. Double bookkeeping the evening, always narrating her near future, the woman leads the man to wonder: Is she a television actress? “I told you no,” she says, “but I also told you I always lie.” Primadonna seductress, Lula—“say it twice,” she orders, “Lula Lula”— will play the race card like kabuki, manically mixing the stranger’s chocolate to her vanilla, but with enough sprinklings of racial epithet to eventually make him crack.
She rubs against him, setting her supersize imagination loose: “You ain’t no nigger…You just a dirty white man.” And that’s when he erupts. In that way, this otherwise compelling play hews close to a stale theatrical formula about racial tension: it simmers until it explodes. It really does.
And that, too, is extraordinary in this play where all is role-play until—snap—it isn’t.
Lula had wondered if is his name is Lloyd, Norman or Leroy—“one of those hopeless Black names coming out of New Jersey.” But it’s Clay, he says, and he playfully let her guess if his last name if Jackson, Johnson or Williams. (It’s Williams.) During the first half of the play, Clay cooperates with the irreverent racial scrimmage. Lula whispers enough sweet words to deceive him that she sees past the color line. Like a puppy, he answers to her barks of “boy.” Later on she’ll call him an Uncle Tom and, ever the actress, hobble around the stage like one.
Keywords of racism clutter the script, but the actors don’t let them pile up into a laundry list. Cornelius Davidson DRA ’15, as Clay, and Carly Zien DRA ’14, as Lula, act with the surgical precision of cruise missile strikes. Not a single cheap emotion crosses their faces. As composed as rocks struck by lightning, Zien and Davidson—especially Davidson—convey the gravity of the situation. Their deep focus belies the fact that “Dutchman” can come across as a morality play.
Sparks fly -— there’s too much romantic chemistry for the two to just plain hate. Davidson plays the part too adorably, too earnestly, to ever be mistaken for the stereotypic Angry Black Man. And Zien’s too complicated, troubled maybe, to just be a Frigid White Bitch.
At times it feels like “Dutchman” served as an echo chamber for Amiri Baraka’s righteous anger, and the script divides the play into two parts: her rant and his. She taunts him for the first half; he strikes back in the second. It’s a call and response effect. And at the rare moment when wit rears its head, it’s ugly. Lula asks Clay if the other white passengers on the train scare him, “because you’re an escaped nigger, you crawled through the wire.”
“You must be Jewish,” he responds. “All you talk about is wire.”
That’s a queasy line to take from Baraka, the poet-playwright who would achieve near-universal infamy with his 9/11 conspiracy theories in the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed. /
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers/
To stay at home that day.”
In a way, “Dutchman” was the watershed in Amiri Baraka’s career that pushed him to write like that. Ultimately, the play’s an argument against the pretense of politesse in a climate of anger. “If Betsy Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have made her music,” Clay says. Charlie Parker “would have played not a note of music if he killed some white people.” Here, Baraka argued that Black art muffled Black politics. Art compromised politics.
And yet, the Yale Cabaret didn’t let politics compromise their art.