By KIMBERLY GRANT
It would be easy to say that Dutchman, first performed in 1963, is a one-act play about a straight black man and a crazy white woman. But that would be a disservice to the underlying tone of the play.
The root of the story, depending on which audience member you ask, is how society eats up black men and spits them out. Or how women can sometimes bring out the worst in men. Or that there’s always a way out of any situation if you’re willing to take it.
Dutchman, written by controversial poet laureate Amiri Baraka née LeRoi Jones, is currently being performed through Sept. 30 at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, by the African American Performing Arts Community Theatre, Inc. (AAPACT).
In the Teddy Harrell Jr.-directed production, we see a buttoned-up Clay (played by Samuel Umoh) riding the subway from New Jersey to New York, minding his own business.
Enter Leulah (Yevgeniya Kats) with “trouble” written all over her in her red hair, red lips and shiny red apples that she eats.
During his long ride to a friend’s party, Clay tries to ignore Leulah, but her charms prove inescapable and Clay falls into her trap, unwittingly owning the inner violence that drives him.
The undercurrent and driving force of Dutchman is how Caucasian people tend to stereotype African Americans and force them into a box. Blacks beaten down and oppressed when they arrived off of slave ships, then forced into further subservient behavior by the Jim Crow South, had begun to take on a persona beyond poor and uneducated, as demonstrated by the Civil Rights movement.
However, many harbored underlying anger at being told what to be rather than being able to be who they are. Even today, with a sophisticated black man, President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, one can hear other people say one of the most insulting things they can to any black person: “You’re not really black.”
To suggest that blacks who speak properly, dress properly and are cultured must not be black because they don’t use Ebonics and are educated is a twofold insult. No one should tell anyone who they should be based on their race.
That said, anyone seeing Dutchman will take away a number of themes; the double insult is just one plot point. Although set in the 1960s, Dutchman still resonates in today’s current climate of race relations and images of blacks — especially men, who still are being beaten down by a system designed for them to fail.
Our president is still being told to “Go back to Kenya,” while his political opponents use every black male they can to serve as their puppet. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
ACTING THE ANGER
In the actor arena, Umoh gives a method performance as the black Everyman of that era. Clay is living between the memory of his parents who have had to stay quiet in the face of racism, and the reality that change is on the horizon, while all the while seething in anger.
Kats, whose Leulah is two parts crazy and one part evil, tries to get in the headspace of a woman who clearly has issues with black men. However, it feels as if there’s a layer to Leulah that never gets explored. As the audience we know that Leulah has been hurt by a black man, and thus takes out her frustration on all black men. But there’s not enough motive to explain her actions.
Dutchman flourishes as a play with stellar actors and plot that gives its audience much to think about. It makes one look inward to see where they can be better.
t’s the kind of play that makes you think twice about the true meaning behind the things people say, and how we react to those things.