A powerful one-act drama, Dutchman brought immediate and lasting attention to poet Amiri Baraka. The play is a searing two-character confrontation that begins playfully but builds rapidly in suspense and symbolic resonance. Set on a New York subway train, Dutchman opens with a well-dressed, intellectual, young African American man named Clay absorbed in reading a magazine. He is interrupted by Lula—a flirtatious, beautiful white woman a bit older than he. As Lula suggestively slices and eats an apple, she and Clay tease each other with bantering talk that becomes more and more personal. She reveals little about herself, but Lula is clearly in control of the conversation and the situation as she perceptively and provokingly challenges Clay’s middle-class self image. Lula is, in fact, a bit cruel. “What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie?” she asks. “Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard.” Aware of his insecurities, Lula dares Clay to pretend “that you are free of your own history.”
Clay’s insecurities about his race, social status, and masculine prowess—slowly revealed as his answers shift from machismo to defensiveness—become the targets for Lula’s increasingly direct taunts. Eventually, Lula’s attempt to force Clay to see in himself the negative stereotypes of the black male—as either oversexed stud or cringing Uncle Tom—goad him into an eloquently bitter tirade. Black music and African American culture, he tells her, are actually repressions of a justified rage that has kept African American people sane in the face of centuries of oppression. Clay seems as desperate to prove this to himself as he is to convince Lula. He does not seem to know whether the rage or the repression has taken the greater toll on African American sanity. The scene escalates in dramatic force until Lula unexpectedly stabs Clay to death.
Baraka has said that Dutchman “is about how difficult it is to become a man in the United States.” Nevertheless, the ancient symbolism of apple and temptation, and the myth of the ghostly pirate ship, The Flying Dutchman, used in Richard Wagner’s opera and other literary works, are carefully suggested in Baraka’s play and amplify the dimensions of racial conflict.