The subway is the city’s great equalizer, a place where all of New York can jostle peaceably. But in “Dutchman,” the incendiary 1964 play by LeRoi Jones, proximity breeds anger, then danger, then death.
The playwright, who would change his name to Amiri Baraka and who died in January, said he wrote “Dutchman” in a single night, inspired by the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that can never anchor. Yet the subway car of “Dutchman,” in a dynamic revival by the National Black Theater and the Classical Theater of Harlem, doesn’t initially seem like such a haunted place. A train that never stops? Well, that’s just the uptown 2 during rush hour. If, that is, the 2 train were a site of ritual murder.
As the play begins, a lone black rider, Clay (Sharif Atkins), contentedly reads The New Yorker. He admires a white woman in a tight summer dress, Lula (Ambien Mitchell), who soon joins him on his bench. Lula offers him an apple — forbidden fruit. Clay eats it.
A succubus with a laugh like a hyena, Lula comes on very strong, then switches to girlish flirtation; she makes dire accusations, then retreats into innocent banter. Her moods turn faster than the car’s wheels. “I lie a lot,” she says. “It helps me control the world.” Most people would be tempted to medicate her. Clay seems charmed, for a while.
Lula utters a shameless invitation and then a number of racial slurs. Suddenly, Clay throws off his middle-class politeness and turns menacing. He slaps her and tells her he could strangle her. His suit and his New Yorker magazine conceal his pure, “pumping black heart.” He sits, he says, “in this buttoned-up suit, to keep myself from cutting all your throats.” As he concludes his speech, Lula stabs him in the gut. Soon another young man (Mr. Atkins again) enters the car. Lula readies an apple.
The director Carl Cofield encourages a charged atmosphere — teasing and tormenting — between the actors, but he can’t solve the problem of the climax. Mr. Atkins’s Clay has such a round-cheeked face and such an obliging manner that his tirade seems to come from another character entirely. Nor does Mr. Atkins suggest just what enrages him — the come-on or the brush off. If Ms. Mitchell seems unconfident at first, she manages most of Lula’s epic mood swings.
“Dutchman” isn’t a nice play. Beyond its difficult racial politics there’s a deep-dyed misogyny that remains present and apparently even attractive. At a recent performance, when Clay threatened to rip Lula’s “lousy breasts off” and called her a whore, a man behind me murmured in sympathy.
But “Dutchman” endures because it resists simple allegory. Does Lula represent assimilation, hegemony, sex, or none of these? Though she murders Clay, she, too, seems a victim, doomed to repeat a hateful cycle. As Ms. Mitchell plays her, there are moments when Lula practically begs Clay to depart from the script, somehow to avoid the inevitable. It’s also unclear if Clay has to die because his tirade marks him as socially dangerous (too black) or because his earlier buttoned-up awkwardness showed him as unworthy (not black enough).
“Dutchman” suggests that certain social problems are insoluble. They are destined to recur, while others look on with seeming indifference. When Lula kills Clay, none of the other passengers seem to mind, though they do help dispose of the body. Well, that’s the subway for you.
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