The late Amiri Baraka was more than an acclaimed poet and author; he was an anthropologist in real time. Over five decades of his books (Blues People), plays (A Black Mass) and poetry (“Someone Blew Up America”) say more about the landscape of America—past and present—than an exhibit at the Smithsonian. His one-act drama Dutchman wasn’t only an Obie Award-winning piece, but a crucial work in his catalog. This year, it celebrates its 50th anniversary with a revival by the Classical Theater of Harlem. A new generation will be exposed to this breakthrough creation of one of Black American culture’s premier literary documentarians.
The National Black Theater is a few mere blocks away from Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where Baraka gave one of his final performances—a 2013 tribute to fellow poet Sekou Sundiata. The sparse Dutchman stage only includes a subway car. (Underneath, you can spy rocks, trash and train-related debris.) The flickering lights of the train car were recreated to realistic effect. There may have been no better backdrop for Baraka’s visceral story of a single Black man’s journey from point A to point B whilst being accosted by a mysterious, neurotic White lady.
Playing the role of Clay is Sharif Atkins, best known for his roles on ER and, currently, White Collar. He approaches the role as an unassuming, middle-class African-American. His character seems content with letting his well-dressed attire tell his life story to the faceless masses, rather than brandish a resentful scowl (simmering just underneath the surface just the same).
In that, Clay is the perfect target for Lula, played dutifully by Ambien Mitchell, whose résumé includes renowned plays like The Glass Menagerie and The Diary of Anne Frank. She challenges Clay from the very beginning of their interaction. Lula describes his dull demeanor as “death eating a soda cracker,” then lures him in with talks of partying and “rubbing bellies”—that is, of course, before challenging his Blackness.
“You’re not a ni**er, you’re just a dirty White man,” she taunts. Clay resists until she finally forces his hand, both figuratively and literally. At last, he unleashes his anger, as Lula (in that moment) represents to him White America’s disenfranchisement with Black America, revealing the dangerous truth behind why they do as they do.
“If Bessie Smith had killed some White people, she wouldn’t have needed that music,” Clay says. “She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No grunts, no wiggles in the dark of her soul.” Clay’s soul-baring monologue proves to be his own epitaph, as an exposed Lula stabs him in the heart.
The brief, deadly encounter between two individuals on a hot New York City afternoon was an intimate and extreme allegory of what Baraka and Blacks of his generation had been living with. It served as a diagnosis of a condition nearly as potent and malignant now as it was in 1964—the continuing lack of understanding between the American White man and the American Black man. And the swift stroke of Lula’s switchblade into Clay’s gut symbolized the death of LeRoi Jones and the birth of Amiri Baraka.
Dutchman was the bridge between Jones, the idealist writer whose books and poems explained the plight of his people, and Baraka, the social activist and revolutionary who dedicated the rest of his life to using the arts as a weapon to combat head the social disease he’d been encountering on the streets of his native Newark.
Although Dutchman has been revived several times and was adapted for the big screen in 1967, Baraka’s death this past January kept him from enjoying its 50th anniversary. While certainly controversial, Baraka’s legacy is arguably unsurpassed and unmatched by most contemporary Black pundits. Dutchman was an illustration of what happens when a well-learned man with an unparalleled gift with words and the misfortune of being Black in a White world wears his heart on his pad and paper. It’s a dramatic looking glass that not only reveals Baraka, but so many others who could see themselves in Clay, clinging to maintain their insanity.