nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 18, 2007
Amiri Baraka's Dutchman has endured for more than 40 years now. I'm guessing the reason for that lies not only with the play's Civil Rights Era subject matter, but also in Baraka's impassioned rhetoric. The playwright's Black Nationalist leanings show through in Dutchman's incendiary take on 1960s race relations. This is a subject that never gets old, as evidenced by the audience's vocal reactions to the play's denouement on the night I attended.
But, for me, the play—currently being revived at Cherry Lane Theatre—is a disappointment that does not live up to its storied hype. Baraka's anger eventually gets the better of him, as his writing veers away from dramatic storytelling and more toward overheated sermonizing. The author's point—that white America is out to destroy black America, and black America must strike back in order to survive—is clear, but he makes it early on and repeats it until the end, leaving Dutchman nowhere to go. The play feels more like a rallying cry than a thought-provoking drama. And, in today's age, Baraka's message has lost a little resonance. The timbre and complexion of racism has changed since 1964, and Dutchman's militant but simplistic tone now renders it more of a museum piece than anything else.
The story involves an encounter between Clay, a polished young black man, and Lula, a mercurial and alluring white woman. The moment she lays her femme fatale eyes on him, the audience knows a seduction will soon be under way. Within moments, the two are locked in an erotic cat-and-mouse game that escalates into a fatal racial confrontation.
The impetus for Dutchman's subway setting is a mystery. As far as I'm concerned, the story Baraka is interested in telling cannot play out convincingly in that environment. At first, Lula's seduction of Clay is so shameless that one would be justified in telling them to get a room. But, as she begins to taunt him with her liberal use of the word "nigger," the vibe grows more uncomfortable until violence erupts. Understandable, of course, but on a train full of people? Is the audience expected to believe that, during all of this, not one passenger tries to say or do something? Or, at least, move to another car? In New York?! I don't buy it.
Director Bill Duke's uneven production never clarifies what time period the play occurs in, either. The ads in Troy Hourie's D train set are clearly those of the 1960s (one passenger even reads a Life magazine with the Beatles on the cover), but Rebecca Bernstein's costumes are contemporary. Whether this disparity is intentional, and intended to make a thematic point, is never made clear. As it stands right now, it's just distracting.
Also, Duke's direction of the action between Clay and Lula, while lively, is dubious. At first, it's understandable that they stand on their seats, twirl around on poles, and generally make spectacles of themselves, since they're the only people on the train. But, when they don't alter their uninhibited behavior as the subway car fills up, Dutchman, to borrow a phrase from TV parlance, jumps the shark, and dissolves whatever credibility it's established up to that point.
As Clay, Dule Hill is dignified and reserved until he reaches Dutchman's climactic speech and unleashes the full enmity that his encounter with Lula has triggered. Jennifer Mudge, however, turns on the heat from the start and steals the show. Her force-of-nature performance is the most vibrant, unpredictable, and fascinating thing in Dutchman. She makes one long to see what she could do with another script.
While I acknowledge Dutchman's place in theatre history, it's clear that the blueprint Baraka laid out here has been modified (and bettered) since then by those who followed after him. If nothing else, theatergoers owe him a debt of gratitude for that.