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?

People begin to board the train, and Lula asks Clay if he's scared of them, because he's "an escaped nigger... crawled through the wire."

CLAY: Plantations didn't have any wire. Plantations were big open whitewashed places like heaven and everybody on 'em was grooved to be there. Just strummin' and hummin' all day.

LULA: Yes, yes.

CLAY: And that's how the blues was born!

Finally, Clay's willingness to play Lula's game sends her into a frenzy; she begins to dance up and down the aisle of the subway car screaming, "Come on Clay... let's do the thing. Uhh! Uhh! Clay! You middle-class black bastard. Forget your social working mother for a few seconds and lets knock stomachs.... You ain't no nigger, you're just a dirty white man." She dances and screams some more, but it is not until she says, "You're afraid of white people," that Clay slaps her.

Driven to the edge, Clay lets loose a monologue that releases the pent-up anger of a life of subjugation.

You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart. You don't ever know that. And I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit to keep myself from cutting all your throats. I mean wantonly. You great liberated whore! You fuck some black man and right away you're an expert on black people.... [White guys] say, "I love Bessie Smith." And don't even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, "Kiss my ass. Kiss my black unruly ass."... Charlie Parker? Charlie Parker. Bird would have played not a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note! And I'm the great would-be poet. Yes. That's right! Poet. Some kind of bastard literature--all it needs is a simple knife thrust. Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished. A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure your neurosis would be your murder.

Then Lula kills him.

It almost goes without saying that the early productions of Dutchman garnered deeply passionate reactions, and that these tended to be divided along racial and gender lines. Michael Smith, theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote, "[Clay's final speech] is overwhelming in its impact in the theater. Its outspokenness is so strong, so extreme, so gripping that Negroes in the audience are moved to cheers. For whites it's terrifying." According to Bellamy, at the close of the Twin Cities productions, "women were offended on both sides of the aisle. Black women were upset because Clay is made to go through so much only because he wants a white woman."

Some critics excoriated the play. Howard Taubman for the New York Times wrote, "This half-hour long piece is an explosion of hatred rather than a play. It puts into the mouth of its principal Negro character a scathing denunciation of all the white man's good works, pretensions, and condescensions. Jones' little work is a melange of sardonic images and undisciplined filth. The impact of his ferocity would be stronger if he did not work so hard and so persistently to be shocking." The L.A. police deemed the play obscene, and Langston Hughes criticized Jones in a New York Post piece which carried the headline "That Boy LeRoi."

It wasn't only Dutchman's politics that were revolutionary. In an age when American audiences were accustomed to domestic dramas about the individual, Dutchman's surreal atmospherics and iconic characters--its dramatization of a system--struck traditionalist critics as a sign of amateurism. Jones was one of the first American playwrights to feel the influence of the new European theater of Beckett and Ionesco, where characters are symbols and plays are located in the realm of the abstract.

Many critics missed the point, and took as inartistic the very things that give the play its art. Philip Roth interpreted Dutchman as a poor imitation of Albee's Zoo Story, criticizing it for unrealistic character development. The New Yorker critic Edith Oliver wrote that Jones "sent the play up in smoke" in its last quarter, under "the mistaken impression that in order to have... impact a good story must be given general and even symbolic implications."

Not every mainstream critic missed its value. Those who liked it, loved it. And there were many: Dutchman was given an Obie for Best New American Play a few months after it opened. But many of the reviews by establishment critics seemed generic, praising the play for its "power" while leaving its thematic content untouched.

An unattributed review in Newsweek commented, "There are two ways to domesticate an original and dangerous new playwright. The first is to praise his obvious virtues while letting his subtly radical ones go unseen; and the second is to disarm his personal vision by enlisting it in some general social or cultural cause. If, like LeRoi Jones, the playwright is a Negro, the temptation to play lion tamer becomes irresistible."

Indeed, a few black critics have speculated that Dutchman's Obie, while well-deserved, was in a way a means of domesticating Jones. If true, it didn't work.

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