Reviewed by Jessica Freeman-Slade
Dulé Hill and Jennifer Mudge in the Cherry Lane Theatre revival (credit: Gabe Evans.)
Though this Dutchman only scratches the surface of what it could be, the revival at Cherry Lane leaves its audience searching for answers, explanations, and a way out of Baraka's tragic cycle.
To read Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play Dutchman is to weigh a parable of overt archetypes against a reality so fantastic it demands to be metaphorized. To see it staged, as in the current revival at the Cherry Lane Theatre starring Dulé Hill and Jennifer Mudge as the naive black man and his white femme fatale, is to confront the words of a militant black beat poet emerging from a 21st-century perspective. Baraka’ glorious language flows beautifully, yet the audience remains uncomfortable because of how unconscious the characters seem to be. Lula (Mudge) enters a subway car, seduces the upwardly mobile Clay (Hill), and prods him into an appropriately stereotypical rage; then, just as he seems to affirm his right to a strong, self-sustained black manhood, she stabs him and throws him off the train. Another young black man takes the now unoccupied seat, Lula sizes him up, and the cycle continues.
Hill, best known as Charlie Young on The West Wing, plays Clay as Lula first sees him: pleasant, unoffensive, entirely willing to accept her schizophrenic flirtation. Personifying all the obsequiousness and good humor for which Lula calls him an Uncle Tom, Hill’s Clay expresses no resistance to Lula whatsoever—he fully looks at her as she steps onto the train, and expresses no shame in it. Though there is something bold about this choice, it is hard to imagine that a black man in Baraka’s time was unconscious of the implications of that sidelong glance. Though she fully explores the possibilities of sexual sadism by jumping from suggestion to epithet in a single phrase, Mudge gives the audience little reason to be seduced along with Clay. Beyond her wicked smile and her long legs, her appeal is entirely metaphorical, perhaps as Baraka intended but certainly not enough to satiate audiences.
The problem behind Baraka’s allegorical play is a question of contextual awareness: are Clay and Lula playing out their own beliefs of how interracial sex might work, and how much does Clay acknowledge his role as a black man creating a sexual dynamic with a white woman? Director Bill Duke has included the presence of a train conductor (the wonderfully sly Paul Benjamin), camping between acts in a minstrel show fashion, and we are aware from his shuffle-along that Baraka's train heads in only direction: to a tragic, unavoidable end. Though Cherry Lane's revival of Dutchman only scratches the surface, it leaves the audience searching for answers, explanations, and a way out of Baraka’s tragic cycle.
Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street)
Performances are Monday and Tuesday at 7:00pm, matinee on Wednesday at 1:00pm, and Thursday-Saturday at 8:00pm.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.