Back in Black

Thirty-four years ago, LeRoi Jones's Dutchman sent American race relations careening on a New York subway. Where's the end of the line?

After the passengers on the subway have helped the white woman carry the black man's corpse off the train, the play finishes and a few audience members file their way to the exit. Brian Goranson, director of Pillsbury House Theatre's production of Dutchman, joins his actors Ralph Remington and Jennifer Blagen onstage for the post-play discussion. We want the production to be a springboard for discussion on race relations in this country, he tells the audience members who have stayed behind. Were there any images, moments, lines, that provoked a reaction? How does this play make you think about race?

Goranson, Remington, and Blagen smile and look out at the audience with welcoming expressions. There is silence. After a while, a white man speaks in general terms about the language of the play, accompanied by the sound of shifting in seats. Then, silence again. The troika onstage looks as if they want to be somewhere else. So does the audience. Finally Rohan Preston, theater critic for the Star Tribune, raises his voice. "I don't know if I should be speaking, but I'm really struck by how uncomfortable everybody is, by how difficult it is for us to have this discussion."

Everybody breathes in.

This discussion, blacks and whites gathering to talk about race, is at the heart of Pillsbury House's production, yet that's not what the play was about when it was born. Dutchman was written in 1963 by beat poet and black activist LeRoi Jones. Soon after Dutchman premiered at New York's Cherry Lane Theatre in 1964, Jones left his white wife, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Newark, New Jersey. Dutchman is looked at as both a catalyst for and a sign of Jones's political transformation, a cri de coeur that thrust him into the center of the cultural wing of the Black Power movement. Black Arts, then, had little to do with discussion; the title for the movement comes from a Baraka poem which exhorts, "We are unfair/And unfair/We are black magicians/Black arts we make/In black labs of the heart/The fair are fair/And deathly white/The day will not save them/And we own the night."

Pillsbury House Theatre is giving Dutchman its fourth major production in the Twin Cities. The first was in 1971 by the now defunct Chimera Theater starring Lou Bellamy as Clay. The second, in the late '70s, was the debut production of Mixed Blood Theatre, directed by Lou Bellamy. The third, in 1992, was produced by Penumbra Theatre, and its artistic director, Lou Bellamy. The importance of the play to American theater is great; Bellamy calls Dutchman "one of the most important plays of this half-century" because "the tenets of the Black Arts movement all come from what Baraka was doing in this play. It was coming about at a time when black people were very interested in setting up their own measuring stick for art and everything else."

The methods and themes in Dutchman became that measuring stick, the prototype for a movement which demands, in Baraka's words, "live/words of the hip world, live flesh &/coursing blood. Hearts Brains/Souls splintering fire."

But Pillsbury House and its artistic director Remington are not looking at this script as a historical piece. Both the racism and anger the work expresses thrive as they did 35 years ago, but our discourse has changed. Jones's politics at the time were separatist; this was not a play designed to bring about racial harmony, nor did the author particularly care what whites thought about it. Baraka himself has now rejected these politics (he recently made his most prominent appearance in decades in the film Bulworth). And Baraka's incendiary verbiage has fallen out of currency, replaced and tamed by the desire for dialogue. The necessary question for any contemporary production, though, is whether the play will yield to polite--or even impolite--conversation.

On the surface, Dutchman is a simple play. Clay is a middle-class black intellectual, sitting on a subway car dressed in a three-button suit, carrying a stack of books. Lula, a white woman who oozes sex, comes on the train and begins to seduce Clay. He is immediately turned on by her charms as she ingratiates herself with him, and he barely notices when her flirtations begin to turn into something more menacing:

LULA: Who do you think you are now?

CLAY: [Laughs as if to make light of the whole trend of the conversation.] Well, in college I thought I was Baudelaire. But I've slowed down since.

LULA: I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger.

Each time her teasing becomes threatening, Lula laughs and seemingly turns friendly and seductive again. But she continues to insert barbs either at his race or at his conformity. "What've you got that jacket and tie on in all that heat for?" she jabs. "And why're you wearing a jacket and tie like that? Did your people ever burn witches or start revolutions over the price of tea? Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by."

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