2-Part 'Dutchman' Spurs Discussion Across Racial Divide
Whether or not "Dutchman" still has the incendiary power it did at its birth in 1964, it certainly remains a pointed parable of race in America or, if you prefer, a disturbing ritual of sacrifice.
As that suggests, there is more than one play in the revival at Bricolage, Downtown (across the street from, and in partnership with, the August Wilson Center). The first play goes only about 50 minutes -- that's LeRoi Jones' famous confrontation between a white woman and a younger black man in a New York City subway car.
That confrontation plays on whites' fears of blacks, as well as of the subway as a place of possible danger. We also fear for the safety of the supposedly weaker sex. Bricolage intensifies these fears by seating the audience on either side of Jesse Connor's very realistic subway car set, the realism enhanced by Jeffrey Small's and Dave Bjornson's rushing lights and sound.
But the play turns our expectations upside down. The personal becomes political. We inevitably see this encounter in the context of others, such as Jordan Miles or Trayvon Martin. The truth, which fearsome whites may not recognize, is that in America, blacks have historically been in more mortal danger from whites than the reverse. That's not to say that the action in this particular subway car might not go either way, but however it ends, who is really the aggressor?
And how do the other riders react? Lula (her name) and Clay (his) aren't alone. Contrary to the script, the other car riders in this production are all white. So, when they accept Lula's directions at the end, we suspect planned conspiracy. Or is it just spur of the moment? The absence of blacks softens the playwright's original intention, but there's still plenty for us to mull over. Even the older black subway conductor who comes through the car at the end, singing, could either be sardonic commentator or Uncle Tom.
Playwright Jones (born 1934) is the poet and critic of culture who soon thereafter changed his name to Amiri Baraka. So the play's explicit criticism of black assimilation is no surprise, even though it's ambiguous enough to support different interpretations.
It also goes deeper than skin color, to the archetypal encounter between male and a feared but fascinating form of the female. Lula plies Clay with apples. She is Eve, yes, but also the eternal seductress of story and myth -- Lulu, Delilah, Circe, La Belle Dame sans Merci. When you consider the malleable quality of Clay's name, it isn't entirely surprising which way this fatal encounter plays out, shuffling off this mortal ... clay, from earth to earth.
I haven't issued a spoiler alert, because with Lula plying her seductive ways, you can see that the encounter is just precursor to the further play of interpretation. The motives and subtext are up for grabs. All that's just the first play, happening on stage, and also the second, which happens when you try to understand emotionally and intellectually what you've seen.
But Bricolage has another play, an Act 2, as it were. As part of each performance, there is what is usually called a talk-back but on this occasion is more correctly called a discussion, with a couple of community leaders as moderators. The night I was there, they hardly had anything more to do than make a statement, then step back and let it rip. The result was less a discussion than a series of confessions -- of fear of the other (either black or white), of anger, of guilt, of modest hope.
It's tempting to see social utility in these conversations, on the assumption that fears and angers aired are partly assuaged. There must be some value, as I once wrote about August Wilson, in "talking with prophetic force across the great American racial divide."
Maybe. More immediately, this second hour of "Dutchman" was as interesting to me as the first.
The first, however, benefits from Tami Dixon, who plays Lula with no-holds-barred seduction and inveigling ferocity, and Jonathan Berry, whose Clay is a measured blend of naive dignity and bewildered rage. Mark Clayton Southers directs with both economy and awareness of the operatic size of this small play.
That's Act 1. Act 2 is up to you.
First Published 2012-05-02 04:03:05