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?

Thirty-four years after Dutchman's first production, brutal reminders of our country's racial problems continue to surface. Last month, a black man was dragged to his death behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, allegedly the work of white ex-convicts with racist affiliations. A KKK parade just graced the same city. In nearby Andover, Minnesota, a gang called the All American Boys circles black households in pickup trucks and wears pride jerseys to a high-school class picture (as chronicled in last week's City Pages). And in a disturbing filing from the department of cultural memory, a contest in conjunction with the rerelease of Gone With the Wind offers the winner a free stay on a genuine Southern plantation.

Yet, paradoxically, the increasing truculence of race relations comes with the continued expectation of a demureness to our nation's racial dialogue. In this conflicted climate, the Pillsbury House Theatre recognizes that Dutchman will offend. "It's part of what we do at Pillsbury," says Remington. "We try to provoke discussion, thought, and anger. Offense is the starting point, but at the end of the continuum is action. When I came into PHT, I said I was going to do whatever the fuck I wanted. And not with the intention to shock. I wanted to create theater that was real, that was guttural, that was visceral, that could sweat, that could pee, that could fuck."

For Pillsbury House's Dutchman '98, offense was indeed the starting point. The production's poster, which shows a white Jennifer Blagen (Lula) licking a black Remington's (Clay's) head, has attracted a measure of controversy. "People are upset about it," says Goranson. "They can't give us reasons, they just say they're offended." Remington adds, "At the Y, they took it down because one of the staff people got offended. Then a couple of the black people got upset and got into it with the white people. So they put it back up, but flyers are covering Jennifer's head."

This partially hidden poster serves as a metaphor for the production itself, which takes place in a world where racism has become less transparent. Lula's role has changed: In the original productions, Lula seemed the agent provocateur of a grand white conspiracy. Pillsbury House takes a different approach. Says Blagen, "The play was done originally with very overt manipulation by Lula, but that was appropriate for the '60s. Racism has changed, and her goals have changed. She's earnest about wanting to connect, but on her terms."

In this production, Lula and Clay hope to effect a communion of their personalities and their persons, but lack an essential comprehension of how to do it. Blagen's Lula, then, approaches her seduction with earnestness. When they are alone in the subway car, they are free to talk and flirt, but hints of danger come as racial barriers rise between them. And as strangers--the intolerant, real world--infiltrate their little universe and communication breaks down, Blagen becomes increasingly antic. Remington, meanwhile, depicts a bemused Clay--affable and willing to play. The theme of this production comes across in Lula's line, "We'll pretend the people cannot see you. That is, the citizens. And that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history. We'll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing along through the city's entrails."

But their union cannot last. And after Lula's pseudo-sexual knifing of Clay, when his body falls on top of hers, Blagen sounds quite sincere when she says, "Sorry is right. Sorry is the rightest thing you've said." Blagen's demeanor slowly transforms from despair to seductiveness, though, as a young black man boards at the next station. Payton J. Woodson soft-shoes down the theater aisle, an apparition of an old black conductor. The moment throws the production into the realm of the mythological. The cycle will repeat endlessly: Lula and the subway car, America and race, are the original Flying Dutchman, destined to sail around the Cape of Good Hope forever with a ghost crew. And Pillsbury's mission seems to be this: to determine at what moment Lula and Clay could have gotten off that train.

This interpretation may not have been Jones's back in 1963, but Dutchman's possibilities as a parable go further than he may have anticipated. Lula, Baraka has claimed, represents America in all its beguiling contradictions, while Clay is oppressed by what Lula represents--and at the same time lusts for her, lusts for it.

And that impulse is complex, contradictory, timeless. Polish theater professor Andrzej Ceynowa wrote about a successful production of Dutchman mounted in Poland in 1967 by an all-white cast: "If I may speculate about what held the audiences in this racially uniform society, I would say that, free from being conditioned to see a racial problem, the Polish theatergoers saw Dutchman as a play about honesty towards oneself and the wages of betraying one's people in the hour of confrontation with a suppressive, alien power."

That description is reminiscent of a production of that great elegy to capitalism, Death of a Salesman, which was produced in communist China in the 1980s. And it's evidence that there exists something archetypal about Dutchman, an enduring theme that remains as potent as the play's politics.

Dutchman continues at the Pillsbury House Theatre through August 1; call 825-0459.

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