Simply in terms of local geography, Source Theatre’s newest production is unusually well-positioned to shine some contemporary light on a middle-aged script. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, a 1964 one-act whose flinty racial dialogue can still be counted on to produce sparks, is about white rubbing against black, hope against reality, and languid desire against fervent ambition. Walking up the grubby sidewalks of 14th Street NW to the theater last weekend, in a neighborhood where money and privilege are sliding in from Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and beginning to obscure, at least from an outsider’s point of view, the sharper edges of lower-class drama, it was hard to miss similar themes playing themselves out on Washington’s public stage.
The weather was appropriate, too. Dutchman is set in the entrails of the New York subway system on a “steaming hot” evening, the same kind of day that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing opens with; last weekend, conveniently enough, brought Washington its first really sweltering evenings of the year. Inside Source’s somewhat cavernous theater—where set designer Greg Mitchell has laid down, diagonally across the floor of the rectangular space, an open-air version of a subway car—at least one of the actors in the opening scene entered with beads of sweat preapplied to his forehead. On the night I was there, that touch, for all its premeditation, was the production’s most naturalistic.
The script for Dutchman—which Baraka wrote when he was still using his given name, LeRoi Jones—is essentially proto-black power. Its historical position, paradoxically enough, is what has saved the play’s language and postures from seeming dated. The notions about African-American self-determination and self-definition that its protagonist, an ambitious young black man named Clay, is whittling in his mind to a sharper and more dangerous point—and that Jones himself was toying with as a young writer—had not yet been shaped into the “Kill Whitey!” simplifications that the country would be hearing by the end of the ’60s. Dutchman has remained fresh in a way that many products of African-American culture from five or 10 years later have not. For whatever reason, the American media have shown no interest in recycling images of early- and mid-’60s blackness a la Sidney Poitier and the young Miles Davis, even as we’re flooded with reimaginings of the pro-black funk axis of the ’70s, from the new George Clinton Nike ads to Eddie Griffin in Undercover Brother.
Dutchman opens to find Clay sitting in the subway car in a light-blue four-button suit, white shirt, and red tie. He’s soon joined by Lula, a 30-year-old white woman who spends most the play trying to convince him, in lewder and lewder language, to behave as a proper dark-skinned object of her desire. The first two-thirds of the script is given over to Lula’s come-ons, which deteriorate into accusations that Clay is an Uncle Tom when he refuses to conform to her very specific sexual fantasies of black masculinity. The last third is devoted to Clay’s response, a long monologue that is one of the high marks in postwar American drama.
Silent and even flummoxed in the early going, Clay finally unleashes a poetic/vitriolic description of the difficult daily performance required to live as a black man in America. “If I’m a middle-class fake white man,” Clay tells Lula, “let me be. And let me be in the way I want….You don’t know anything except what’s there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart. You don’t ever know that. And I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit, to keep myself from cutting all your throats. I mean wantonly….If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music.”
For all their edge—and despite the way their language shades into misogyny, in an unfortunate foreshadowing of the kind of lopsided gender relations that held sway in groups like the Black Panthers—these passages are among the play’s more hopeful. When Clay says to Lula, “Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished,” Baraka also seems to be suggesting the reverse: that one poem created might equal one murder vanished. But Clay is not sure he wants to give himself completely over to rationality. The play’s real attraction is the way the script casts shadows on its bright, hard political truths with darker and murkier language, and how Clay’s spasms of uncontrolled emotion repeatedly frustrate his deep sense of decorum.
Ralph Remington’s direction is appealingly anachronistic: Though Clay’s suit might be 40 years old, the rest of the costumes (by Kathleen Geldard) are contemporary. And the music Remington and sound designer Brian Keating use to great effect, often paired with flashing strobe lights (by Mike Daniels) and slow-motion movement through the train, includes the Beastie Boys, Missy Elliott, and the Jackson Five. W. Ellington Felton, entirely too old for the part of Clay, gives the 20-year-old character a world-weary intelligence; he seems more than most Clays to have gone through this kind of ritualistic mating dance before, which is in its own way a fresh twist. And he goes convincingly and inexorably from contained to uncoiled. Jenifer Deal is especially predatory, even Amazonian, as Lula, a trait that is underscored by Remington’s decision to stage her act of violence at the end of the play as far more deliberate than passionate. Though their relationship never really seems as flammable as it should, together the two actors give the production a substance and heft that belie its 50-minute running time. CP