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."

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.

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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