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.
Scene 1. Clay and Lula exchange glances as Clay sits inside a subway car pulling into a station and Lula stands outside waiting to board. At first, Clay smiles at Lula “without a trace of self-consciousness,” but then he feels a growing sense of embarrassment. The smile that crosses Lula’s face is “premeditated.” After eating an apple, Lula offers one to Clay. She attempts to engage him in sexual banter, and she ridicules him for adopting the posture and dress of the white middle class, telling him, “You look like death eating a soda cracker.” At the same time that Lula makes explicit sexual overtures to Clay, she harasses him about his middle-class identity and his resulting status as a dislocated African American man in America: “Everything you say is wrong. . . . Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by. . . . Your grandfather was a slave, he didn’t go to Harvard.”
Scene 2 . Clay and Lula decide to go to a party together. Lula verbally creates the scenario of a sexual encounter between them. As the conversation continues, Lula becomes more derogatory, her language more racial and aggressive, and she jumps up into a wild dance, shouting slurs at Clay and demanding that he get up to dance and to have...
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sex with her.
Clay tries to calm her down. At first nervously bemused, he becomes more agitated and forceful. When Lula continues to holler epithets and slurs at him, he slaps her hard across the mouth and throws her into a seat. Telling Lula to “shut up and let me talk,” Clay then verbally (and figuratively) abuses Lula, stripping her of her delusions of power, insight, and security. He declares that a potentially revolutionary violence underlies African American experience, though it is “for now” present only in the subterranean and indirect modes of jazz and poetry: “If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors. . . . Just let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished.”
Lula’s response to Clay’s furious challenge is cold and detached: “I’ve heard enough.” Clay, too, is suddenly tired, and abruptly he is ready to end the conversation. He turns to leave the subway car, saying, “Looks like we won’t be acting out that little pageant you outlined before.” As he bends over her to grab his things from the seat, Lula stabs him twice in the chest with a knife. He is dead immediately. Lula turns to the other passengers on the train, both black and white, who sat passively during the entire exchange, and commands them to dump Clay’s body from the train and to disembark at the next station. The passengers do as they are told.
Another young African American man boards the subway, carrying his books. “An old Negro conductor,” walking through the car, acknowledges the young man with a quick “Hey, brother,” then passes Lula “doing sort of a restrained soft shoe.” He tips his hat to her and leaves the car. Lula and the young man are left alone.
Dutchman, winner of the 1964 Obie Award for best Off-Broadway production, is a riveting dramatization of psychosexual, interracial tensions. The title bears mythical implications, supported by Baraka’s own stage directions, which indicate a subway setting filled with modern myth. Despite Baraka’s insistence that the two main characters are individuals, not allegorical creations, he confines them within this subterranean set. The Dutch sailed the first slave-bearing vessel to the American colonies. The legend of The Flying Dutchman is one of a ship cursed to sail the seas eternally without ever finding safe harbor. Even if the first were a simple allusion, together these suggest that white America has doomed itself through its nonrecognition of blacks as human. If so, Lula, as the white representative, will inhabit the subway, preying upon her black victims until one galvanizes himself into action, freeing himself and both races through her murder.
Lula, the protagonist, controls scene 1. She enters from behind Clay, initiates their confrontive conversation, and sits beside him. Even though he is uncomfortable, she makes seductive overtures. Her accurate assessment of his middle-class background and assimilationist behavioral mask also fascinates him into continuing their conversation. Lula, the oppressor, condescendingly sees Clay as a stereotype and commands the topics with which they essentially talk at each other. By admitting that she is a liar—and later, that she is insane—Lula forces him into the untenable situation of having to process each of her statements as fact or fiction. Furthermore, it is she who offers Clay an apple that he accepts; critics have made much of the possible Adam and Eve analogy. Lula is also the initiator of physical aggression, first running her hand along Clay’s leg and later harshly grabbing and shaking his wrist.
Clay, in suit and striped tie despite the summer heat, has assimilated into the white world. He does not wish to call attention to himself. Clay sees Lula also as a stereotype—of the liberal white woman fascinated by fantasies of interracial sexual intercourse. Momentarily excited by her, he allows himself to become vulnerable by adapting to her mercuric emotional shifts.
In scene 2, as Lula describes her party plans in seductive detail, Clay begins to make physical advances. Their dialogue, strikingly fast-paced from the play’s opening lines, intensifies into a dueling rhythm as they both become more openly confrontational. They even capture the attention of normally apathetic fellow subway riders, who watch their interaction with some interest. A major shift occurs when Lula unmasks Clay, accusing him of having escaped to her (the white) side. Clay assumes control, and Lula defends herself with hysterics, singing and dancing in the train aisle. Clay refuses every invitation to join her until she goads him to restrain her by warning him that he is dying because of his assimilation, that he must release himself from his self-imposed bonds. He wrestles her (as well as the drunk who attempts to defend her) into submission, slapping her with full strength.
Baraka sees dance as an ultimate expression of life. Lula’s hysterical invitation, however, assumes a double meaning. Even though she may be offering Clay an apparent passageway out of his self-victimization, she is simultaneously inviting him into a new bondage: life on her terms. With no viable means of regaining his mask or escaping, Clay is finally free to expunge his rage. He erupts into a devastating diatribe that avows his contempt for those who surround themselves with illusions to avoid reality, his homicidal hatred of whites, and his need to assimilate so as not to commit mass murder. According to Clay, black art and music are escape valves that would be unnecessary if the artists would simply exterminate whites: “A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murders.”
Clay defeats himself, however, by retreating tiredly from an insistence upon action to the safety of words. He concludes with a warning not to trust assimilated blacks because someday they will embark on a genocidal rampage, using as their justification the same white rationalizations they have been taught.
As Clay bends to gather his books, Lula stabs him twice; after he has destroyed her illusions of him, she must destroy him. Whether her actions are premeditated can be interpreted dramatically through her interactions with the other passengers. Her earlier admission that she knows them even more intimately than she knows Clay and their easy acquiescence in disposing of his body suggest either complicity or a compelling fear. That their presence as her “crew” is prearranged is in keeping with the Dutchman myth. Her preparation to start the cycle once more with another young black who enters the car further supports the mythical interpretation.
In Dutchman, Baraka dramatizes two of his major themes. The first is that dehumanizing sexuality, in any form, leads to death. Clay and Lula’s sexual interaction is simply another layer of masking. It is sterile, with no spiritual or emotional intimacy. Baraka’s second theme is that psychic paralysis leads to annihilation. Clay has the opportunity to survive until he is caught in his own self-destructive trap. As a poet, he retreats into words and poetry when challenged because they are safe and comfortable, even when he recognizes the need for action. He does not see his art’s potential as a motivating agent for change, and he reverts to passive resistance, giving up. Consequently, his art, too, is sterile. It is Lula who survives, by committing the extreme guerrilla action in murdering him.