In Amiri Baraka’s play Dutchman, the white and black passengers symbolize the inability of the individual to make substantial difference in race relations in the United States through their inaction and complicity. Baraka is telling the audience that this inaction and complicity perpetuates the strained and unequal race relations, and it afflicts both white and black individuals.
Baraka’s play is rife with allusion and symbolism, and it can be examined as an allegory. He was also in the process of divorcing his Jewish wife at the time of writing, so aspects of the larger racial landscape in America may have been affecting him and his wife.
The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship which sails endlessly with a crew that cannot escape, much like the white and black subways riders who are unable to escape the contentious race relations. The play’s title also connects to the Dutch slave ships which brought chained Africans to America, which of course started the racial dynamics in America.
Clay’s name relates to the idea of malleability in which he feels like he needs to change aspects of his life, such as his voice and the words he speaks, in order to truly integrate in America. Lula’s apple alludes to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
As the play progresses and the threat of violence from Clay and Lula becomes more likely, both the white and black passengers allow the action to progress. At the end, after Lula kills Clay, the passengers help her dispose of the body, which depicts how complicit they are in the issues. Before Lula begins interacting with another black man, the black train conductor tips his hat to her, again showing his complicity.