Last Updated January 2, 2024.
Dutchman, a one-act play by Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones), is a powerful exploration of race, identity, and societal expectations in 1960s America. Dutchman was first performed in 1964, a tumultuous period marked by civil rights activism and a changing cultural landscape. Baraka's work reflects the racial tensions and struggles for equality at the time and serves as a commentary on the complexities of Black American identity. The play is set entirely within the confined space of a New York City subway car. It revolves around two central characters, Clay and Lula, whose interactions mirror broader societal dynamics.
Dutchman opens with Clay, a reserved and well-dressed Black man, seated on a subway. Lula, a provocative white woman, sits down next to him. With overtones of seduction, she mentions seeing him staring at her through the train's window while she stood on the platform. She says she specifically got on this train after seeing him look at her.
Lula admits that she often lies because "It helps me control the world." She creatively yet accurately guesses Clay's middle-class background, New Jersey origin, and intention to attend a friend's party in the city. She then seductively runs her hand over Clay's leg. Clay asks Lula how she knows so much about him. She tells him, "I didn't know anything about you... you're a well-known type."
In a likely allusion to the biblical Eve, Lula offers Clay an apple, which he takes and eats. Lula then playfully insists that Clay invite her to the party. In a sudden change of mood, Lula becomes irritated at Clay. She mocks his apparent attempts at assimilation into white society, such as wearing a suit and having a college education.
The second scene opens with Clay and Lula still on the train. Some time has passed. The two of them are more familiar than before, with Lula hanging on Clay's arm as he kisses her fingers and neck. Lula describes what will happen at the party once they arrive. As Lula details their evening, the atmosphere becomes increasingly provocative and exciting yet tinged with melancholy. Lula vividly describes the night's culmination in her dark living room, where the "real fun" will begin.
At this point, it is clear to Clay and the audience that Lula's behavior is becoming increasingly erratic. She starts tossing garbage into the aisle and swearing at other passengers that she bumps into. Making up a song laced with racial epithets, she insists that Clay dance with her and that they "do the nasty." Clay is intrigued and excited by her behavior, but he is also embarrassed. As he tries to deflect Lula's advances, she becomes more uncontrolled and frenzied and starts mocking stereotypical Black speech.
Lula accuses Clay of abandoning his race in favor of assimilating into white culture. Clay becomes more desperate for Lula to calm down and return to her seat. However, his attempts to settle Lula down only incite her further. As Lula hurls more insults at Clay, he loses his composure and drags her back to her seat, fighting a drunk passenger in the process. As the insults continue, Clay slaps Lula across the face.
Indicating that a potential for violence exists within him, Clay says that he could murder her and anyone else on the train. He says that, to him, assimilation is the only thing keeping him from committing these acts of violence. Clay demands that Lula just let him define his existence and how he will, even if it is assimilated.
Don't you tell me...
(This entire section contains 808 words.)
anything! If I'm a middle-class fake white man... let me be. And let me be in the way I want.
Clay continues his denunciation of white people who pretend to understand the Black experience. Full of barely controlled rage, he says that all the blues and jazz that Lula listens to are coded insults aimed at white people — a way to release tension and anger without resorting to violence. He warns Lula not to trust assimilated Black people because the rationalizations they have learned from white culture will lead them to commit mass murder.
Having composed herself, Lula tells Clay that she has heard enough from him. They agree that their planned tryst won't be happening. As Clay prepares to leave the train car, Lula suddenly stabs Clay in the chest with a knife. Lula turns to the other passengers and tells them to throw Clay out of the train and leave at the next station. They silently oblige, leaving Lula alone in the train car.
Soon, another young Black man boards the train. As the two make eye contact, a Black conductor amiably shuffles through, humming a tune and doing a little dance down the aisle. After he is gone, Lula and the newcomer are left alone, presumably to repeat the events that have just taken place.