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.