Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352
Clay, a twenty-year-old, middle-class black man, a college-trained intellectual from New Jersey. He wears a three-button Ivy League suit and tie and passes time by reading a newspaper. He appears to be in control of himself and his environment, amenably aware of sex but not of race, as evidenced when a white woman enters a subway car and coquettishly sits down beside him. He is both embarrassed and fascinated by the woman. Clay is pigeonholed by the woman as being the assimilated African American who wants to pretend that people cannot see his blackness and that black and white people are free of their history. When Clay is insulted, taunted, and goaded by her, however, he loses control of both himself and his situation. Clay’s character is both real and symbolic. Symbolically, he represents black America, Adam, and the legendary “Flying Dutchman” of the play’s title who was doomed to sail forever unless saved by the love of a virtuous woman.
Lula, a thirty-year-old white woman. Tall, slender, and beautiful, with long, straight red hair, she wears loud lipstick, bright, skimpy summer clothes, sandals, and sunglasses. Clay perceives her as a white, bohemian-type liberal. Recognizing that beneath the surface of the supposedly assimilated black man is a savage spirit chafed by years of oppression, she begins to goad Clay with insults, seeking to uncover his true nature. Although she seduces the outward man, she wishes to seduce and control the inner man as well. She continues to taunt and embarrass him in front of others who have entered the subway car, goading him to show his raw, animal nature. Like Clay, Lula is both real and symbolic. Symbolically, she represents white America and its attempted seduction and consequent destruction of black manhood by assimilation or annihilation; she also represents Eve to Clay’s Adam, eating and offering him an apple just as the biblical Eve did. She, too, can be viewed as the legendary “Flying Dutchman, cursed to sail forever with a crew of living dead and compelled to carry out an endless ritual of seducing and destroying.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321
Clay is a twenty-year-old black man, or, according to Baraka, a Negro man. The distinction is that a Negro, according to the playwright' s nominative system, is one who compromises his own identity in order to maintain a peaceful relationship with his white oppressors. Clay is a typical bourgeois black male, so predictably bourgeois that Lula is able to tell his life history by the evidence of his dress (a too-narrow suit coat), his demeanor (decorous, tentative), and his style of speech (middle class, intellectual, full of pretensions).
Clay is at first attracted to the sexy, young woman who begins a taunting seduction of him and invites herself along to his friend's party. But her sudden mood swings and unexpectedly violent racist language shock him. Even so, he maddeningly humiliates himself in his attempts to maintain his composure at all costs and to match her violence with intellectual dexterity. For some reason he is intrigued by her, as though she is some kind of social test he desperately wants not to fail. But the sordid truth is that it is his very anxiety to prove himself worthy to her (white cultural) values that causes him to fail this test. For Clay, who dreamed in college of being a black Baudelaire (a famous French poet), is a member of the black bourgeoisie (upwardly mobile middle class), "just a dirty white man," a white wannabe.
Clay recognizes the compromises he has made, yet shirks from committing the murder of whites that would absolve him of compromise. He takes refuge in the fortress of his words. He warns Lula, however, that the cultural conditioning of blacks could backfire, since they soon may be able to rationalize their murders as whites do. Lula's symbolic murder of him serves to quiet him, but it is also merely an extreme version of the social murder he submits to in prostituting his manhood by conforming to white values.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
The old conductor is the stereotypical "Jim Crow" or "Uncle Tom" black character (characters who would often dance and sing to delight whites) who seems content with his lowly station in relation to whites. His quick soft-shoe shuffle before exiting the rail car is symbolic of the way blacks expressed their suppressed freedom through artistic forms such as dance, music, and song. Clay, like Baraka, found this sublimation of rage both impotent and self-delusional. But the reality is that, at the play's close, the conductor is alive while Clay is dead.
The Caucasian Lula is a thirty-year-old femme fatale who alternately seduces and insults Clay. She is a mythical apple-offering Eve to his clumsy and naive Adam. Lula is the embodiment of Western Civilization, seductive and ferociously greedy, relentless, but also psychotic, lonely, trapped by her own cultural identity. There is never a sense, as there is with Clay, that a real beating heart lies behind her cultural armor. Instead, she is the mythical all-devouring female, mindlessly dispatching with Clay's manhood (and later his dead body) so that she can attend to her next victim. She is programmed to destroy; she simply follows the path, placing her feet "one in front of the other."
This process of oppression bores Lula, and she occasionally lapses into a daze and makes morbid comments on her fantasized seduction ("You'll call my rooms black as a grave. You'll say, 'This place is like Juliet's tomb'"). She lets loose strings of racist insults when Clay fails to succumb to her seduction and "rub bellies" with her in a crazy erotic dance. She cannot abide the brutal honesty of Clay's final speech, in which he is finally truthful about his fate and his reluctance to change it. But Lula (Shirley Knight) begins her dangerous seduction of Clay (Al Freeman, Jr.), in a scene from the 1967 film adaptation of Baraka's play her irritation only reminds her of her duty, to dispatch with this victim and move on to the next.
Ostensibly Lula's subsequent victim. The young black man of about twenty boards right after Lula and the other passengers throw Clay's dead body off of the train. Like Clay, he carries some books, indicative of his intellectual ambitions. Like Clay, too, Lula entices him with her gaze, and her mythical, ritual cycle of racial hostility begins anew.