"You can show the kindest person in the world, who's in America, and show him being destroyed by it," Amiri Baraka explained in his talk-back after a stunning performance of his newly revived play, "Dutchman", at its original venue, The Cherry Lane Theatre. Asked if he thought his play was more a historical document or a living work of theater, he answered simply that our culture has grown subtler in its repressions, but not gentler. And what we get on his stage is anything but a gentle, moderate response to these forces of decimation; it is rather the gentle man, Clay, Baraka's protagonist, turned delirious with rage and then murdered for it.
First performed in 1964, after Kennedy's assassination but before King's, it is a play that stands eerily at the cusp of meltdown, exerting a wild gravitational force over its audience, pulling listeners toward the conviction that all will not turn out well, nor peaceably, in America --
Set in a period subway car, projections of stations and speeding tracks behind the windows with a soundtrack to match, the audience is lost in what, for its rumbling stillness, soon comes to feel like a feverish dream. The action opens with the figure of a haggard, wraith-like Afro-American subway conductor dancing across the stage singing a nonsense song and waiving his hands in minstrel show stylization -- a crazy and ruined mythic creature who propels the train on its preordained courses. We start out well beyond the realm of stage realism, which allows the perfectly realistic and reasonable protagonist to stand as the stable figure of the dreamer in this nightmare world.
We first meet Clay (Dulé Hill) dressed conservatively, reading a book of poetry when Lula (Jennifer Mudge) intentionally catches his eye through the train window. What ensues is a pseudo-Edenic seduction, where Lula offers up along with her apple not the dangers of knowledge as such, but of life unchecked by history, art, culture, or the great power of negativity and resentment to transform life for the better -- in short, not knowledge, but rather a blinding, and surely white consciousness and hyper-awareness in the absence of morality. "God, you're dull," is her response to Clay's polite dismissal toward her initial advances. She is a white hipster of classic traits turned ominous: mesh bag in hand, comfortable yet sexually provocative dress worn with ease, and sunglasses manipulated on and off of her eyes in the horror show that proves it doesn't make a difference if she wears them or not: hers is a dead stare. "What are you into anyway? What are you playing at, Mister?" she asks the comparatively inscrutable Clay. She may be all pretense and show, her flirtations and her jibes at his seeming stiffness all part of her act, but she isn't pretending that there's anything underneath, and the fact that Clay's thin persona seems to cover up a whole weight of felt humanity torments her. This is admirably achieved by Ms. Mudge's alternately clipped and wailing speech. Her vocal register, too, varies as widely as the tormented, loveless, bloodthirsty spirit of the age she stands for. "Boy, those narrow-shouldered clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by," she badgers Clay. Mr. Hill's performance brings out the most painful counterpoint: a reserved young man full of life and ideas, who is only slowly drawn out by her open sexual invitations, and finds that the real invitation is one to first simulated and then real death. Lying back in Clay's finally open arms, Lula wails:
[We'll pretend] that you are free of your own history. And that I am free of my history. We'll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing along through the city's entrails. [She yells as loud as she can] GROOVE!
Of course the operative word is pretend, and it's in this pretense that the real threat of annihilation lies for Clay. If he follows her, follows her entire easy program, he can presumably erase distinctions, escape race. But to do so in a world where the master-slave dynamic weighs so heavily over all discourse is to risk everything, to cancel the self and any chance of authentic vindication. "May the people . . . love you, that you might not kill them when you can," she baldly declares, but in a voice that dips in and out of sarchasm so rapidly that Clay is for the time unsure of her motives. But as he is further seduced by Lula, she gets nastier, mocking his dress and his manner, at the climax of it calling him "Thomas Wooly-Head," and revealing brilliantly and with nightmarish clarity that the other side of the hip world she so ardently advocates is nothing other than the world of naked racism. The logic for a moment becomes clear, it seems, even to the present-day audience: to ask someone to give up his history when nothing has yet been solved, when the system of repression remains, is to ask him to revert psychically into the cycle of brutality at its start point. And as her motives become thus apparent, Clay is overcome with rage that manifests itself most potently in a speech outlining wrathful grievances in utter truth that only now can carry full weight. At its height Clay demands that,
Bird would've played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note! And I'm the great would-be poet . . . a whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder . . . If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn't have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world, no metaphors.
It is only once Clay himself has been freed in this way to speak the unadorned truth, and is filled with violent rage that sends the white passengers on the train into sniveling convulsions and an elderly Afro-American drunk to head-shaking, that Lula's contempt turns to physical force and she stabs him in the gut as he's about to get off the train. In his renunciation of the white world and his revelations of truth, he has violated the fundamental principles of that world and must be summarily killed. Lula commands the other white passengers to help carry off the body, and they do.
Without venturing too far into biographical speculation, it's worth noting that from a Howard College graduate and subsequently Air Force gunner to a central figure of the beat poetry scene in the village, Baraka himself was drawn from unlikely quarters into a burgeoning hip culture that he first helped to nurture -- with ventures like Totem Press -- but ultimately rejected in favor of a new and more overtly political way. When he appeared on stage to talk to the audience after this latest production, he sat down on the subway seat Clay had been in, and grinned, conveying silently so much of the story of his progression. Baraka's gestures, both in Theatre and in life, are always memorable for their economy and their sabotage of expectations.
Importantly, the play itself is filled with intentional crudities and the production feels sometimes driven toward amateurism. And this seems essential. Adorno may put it best: "No work of art, no thought, has a chance of survival unless it bears within it repudiation of false riches and high-class production . . ." (Minima Moralia, ch. 30). This is particularly true of a play that seeks to unmask that slick show of mainstream America as the machine of murder it is. There is nothing pretty in this play, and indeed there must not be if we are to understand how far Baraka seeks to go in his censure.
However, his work has always been popular amongst white, liberal audiences. This irony -- that for his clearly worded exposure of truth Clay is stabbed by the white world where Baraka himself is lauded by it -- cannot go unnoticed. Considering the nature of the murderous sentiments expressed in "Dutchman", the unpleasant question comes to the fore: are these audiences in part drawn to his work out of the masochistic impulse so commonly found in the privileged elite of a culture? Take the figure of Wallace Shawn: born into New York's literary establishment and into wealth and ease and, as expressed in plays of his such as "The Fever" (currently playing at Theatre Row) acutely aware of the moral gymnastics that accompany the maintenance of such privilege. Shawn's characters are neurotics, too, but unlike Clay it is finally the internalized force of cultural inertia that keeps them from action. It is perhaps the wide population of real life people like this who drove Baraka to a more extreme poetry that demonstrates material oppression rather than pontificates about it. And yet to hear an authentic attack on your culture and way of life, accept that attack, and continue on in complicity is only to dive further into moral paralysis. However, such a state of affairs is perhaps not wholly antithetical to Baraka's aim; if the promoters of a culture he wishes to destroy are frozen stiff by his insights, he has at least rendered the forward guard of that culture, the very group that once helped to renew it, defunct. And if Afro-Americans are equally affected, but driven toward political action, then the play works on both fronts. In Baraka's own words opening his 1965 essay, "State/meant":
The Black Artist's role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.
(Jones/Baraka Reader, pg. 169.)
Given the American public's current level of cultural malaise, moral ignorance, and apathetic indifference to hegemonic brutality committed in its name against denizens of artificial post-colonial nation-states -- those pre-packaged victims of the very same forces that fueled the slave trade -- those of us who hope for something better can only assent to Baraka's project as a saner solution than this self-propelled degeneration.
"Dutchman" is the rare work of theatre that is so much preoccupied with its time as to constitute a concise education in what it meant to be alive and care about justice in the year of its creation, and that simultaneously retains its immediacy of effect on the imagination and conscience of its new audiences, in this case forty-five years later. There's sadness in admitting that Baraka's play has lost none of its pressing social relevance, even as we celebrate his genius.
"Dutchman" continues through February 24th at The Cherry Lane Theatre. (212) 239-6200.