The Obie Award-winning play Dutchman was the last drama written by LeRoi Jones before the playwright, poet, novelist, essayist and music critic changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Baraka would become ever more deeply involved in the black nationalist movement, but his philosophy and furor infuse his taut play about a vulnerable black Adam and a lethal white Eve.
Baraka’s pointedly provocative, still-controversial one-act has been revived at Liberty City’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center by the African-American Performing Arts Community Theatre. Though written in 1964, Dutchman has lost none of its sting since its debut almost 50 years ago at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. This play is the opposite of the safe-bet, crowd-pleasing fare that so many nervous South Florida theater producers choose.
Running less than an hour, the play unfolds in a subway car traveling through subterranean Manhattan. Clay (Samuel Umoh), a stylishly dressed young black man who looks like he’s bound for an office job, is minding his own business when Lula (Yevgeniya Kats) boards the train. A sexy young white woman with luxuriant red hair, she is munching on an apple as she deposits herself next to Clay, the only other person in the car.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Lula is a liar (she says as much, more than once) and sheer, unadulterated, crazy trouble. Dutchman preceded Fatal Attraction by 23 years, but Lula could have been the prototype for the movie’s insane Alex.
The woman has lightning fast mood swings, seducing Clay with the promise of late-night sex, indulging in racist name-calling, tossing apples around a car that fills up with other passengers, none paying least bit of attention to the crazy redhead. When Lula finally succeeds in infuriating Clay, the confrontation plays out in a way designed to shock.
Director Teddy Harrell Jr. has Umoh underplay Clay initially, giving the actor room to build toward his explosive, physically violent confrontation with Kats’ Lula. Kats has the tougher task, because Lula doesn’t behave the way any remotely sane woman would. She’s one of those crazy subway riders who would make you flee to the next car or get off immediately, no matter how far you were from your stop.
Umoh and Kats deliver the play, though more finesse from both would make Dutchman land more powerfully. And though this play is a political allegory that sometimes wanders into the surreal, the complete lack of reaction by the silent passengers to Lula’s racist diatribes — symbolic though that may be — just doesn’t fly.