Cherry Lane Theater has taken a big chance with its new production of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, but it's not the first time. And this time, like the last, the effort appears to have paid off. Baraka's play premiered at Cherry Lane in 1964. A short, contentious piece, it brought up controversial questions about race, ranging from such issues as interracial dating to the pressures many blacks feel from their communities and from a society that tells them they must "act white" in order to succeed.
Today the play still brings up many of the same questions, but the major controversy surrounding this new production may be not so much the story within the play as the one outside it. A few years ago, in his poem "Somebody Blew Up America," Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) notoriously suggested that Israel had previous knowledge of the 9/11 bombings and had warned its citizens to stay away from work that day. And indeed, the fact that there are several references to Jews and Judaism in Dutchman complicates the work in light of Baraka's statements.
That said, the work is still important in how it focuses on matters of integration and assimilation. The play's main character, Clay (Dulé Hill), is a young black intellectual who, by all appearances, is happily acclimated to an integrated America. He is educated, well dressed, soft-spoken, and articulate. What people don't know, however, is the rage that boils underneath, which comes out only when provoked. Such provocation presents itself during a chance subway encounter with the seductive and unpredictable Lula (Jennifer Mudge), who challenges Clay to defend his bourgeois lifestyle.
In interviews about Dutchman, Baraka has suggested that the play is an allegory about race in this country, where Clay represents the aspirations of black Americans and Lula represents America, in all that this nation promises and can take away. In a talk-back session after a recent performance, Baraka told the audience that the play's title comes from the Flying Dutchman, a ship that must sail forever until its captain finds love, which is like the subway in this piece. Clay and Lula express many emotions toward each another: lust, hate, and fear, but love is not among them. Baraka suggests that the subway, like the Flying Dutchman, must be the setting for love in order to end a vicious cycle as it travels the rails endlessly.
Kudos to Troy Hourie, whose set is fantastic: theatergoers are greeted by a 1960's subway operator standing in front of a white-tiled wall inlaid with an emblematic tile "D," like the familiar station signs adorning the walls of many subway stops. One must pass through a period turnstile to enter the theater.
While waiting for the performance to start, videos of New York City subways arriving and leaving a station play on a loop along the walls. Occasionally, the lights flicker on and off, imitating a stopped subway car. When the performance begins, the conductor arrives and pulls down the flats in front of the stage, revealing a very lifelike replica of a 60's subway car. The cumulative effect is a kind of total environment, where the audience feels it is inside a subway car from that era.
Hill is formidable as Clay. He is always unassuming and seemingly innocent throughout the beginning of the play. But he can also be menacing and in charge, as the play's later part demands.
As Lula, Mudge is best when she is attempting to seduce Clay; she is not as convincing when analyzing him. Though wild, her character has an amazing perceptivity: She recognizes and sees significant things about Clay, even though she has never met him. Because of this, Lula should be savvy and sophisticated, but a bit off her rocker, like a J.D. Salinger character grown up. Yet too often Lula is depicted as a ditzy valley girl. In these moments she seems more of a lightweight figure than the formidable adversary she should be.
The conductor (Paul Benjamin) has a relatively small but important part. Twice during the production, this character, a black man, comes out and performs a minstrel routine. This performance connects Clay's individual struggle to the historic struggle of African-Americans to manage white society's expectations and stereotypes—which were performed through minstrelsy—and their own need for self-expression and cultural preservation.
Though for many what Baraka has accomplished in the play might be blemished by the incendiary remarks he has written since its premiere, this does not diminish the work's importance. Dutchman still proves its value in its ability to rouse discussion about race in America.