The question posed by the off-Broadway revival of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman is not whether the play deserves a place in the canon (it does) but whether it retains its ability to detonate thought about American racism. Judging from Bill Duke’s unexceptional production at the Cherry Lane, the recently refurbished site of the drama’s premiere in 1964, when Baraka was known as LeRoi Jones, the answer tends towards the negative.
In this one-act confrontation between a besuited black man, Clay, and a temptation-wielding white woman, Lula, on a New York subway train, there is still power in the text. Clay’s culminating speech, with its deconstruction of white people’s views of Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker and its statement that “murder would make us all sane”, still crawls under your skin.
Yet as interpreted by Dule Hill, Clay has been drained of danger. Without menace – I once saw a production of this play where Clay’s transformation from bookish to violent had a few women in the front row squirming – there is no need to think of Dutchman as anything but diverting – a pastime not a provocation.
As for Lula, whether she represents a woman projecting on to Clay the memory of a fractured relationship or symbolises white America itself, sensually seductive but ultimately destructive, this version sheds little light. At least Jennifer Mudge conveys Lula’s unhinged come-hitherness. She winds her way around the train’s metal shafts like a stripper slithering round a pole.
The production’s chief pleasure is the designer Troy Hourie’s transformation of the theatre into a subway car. A conductor pulls back the doors to reveal the inside of the carriage, and rear video projections convey the whoosh of the train through its stops. The stations appear with unrealistic infrequency, making Clay’s comment on the subway’s slowness absurd, or at best ironic. Baraka’s text deserves more careful treatment.
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