“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” Leslie Gore intones just before perky Jamaican singer Millie Small reminds us that “My Boy Lollipop” is “as sweet as candy.” We are firmly in 1964 where LBJ is about to sign the vast Civil Rights Act.
But playwright LeRoi Jones, who will soon follow the Black Muslim trend after the assassination of Malcolm X and become Amiri Baraka, doesn’t really see a future. He writes the powerful short play, “Dutchman” – part allegory, part diatribe. It is a burning work that never fades from memory. I met him in drama school shortly after racial equality was enshrined in law and we marched for the Equal Rights Amendment finally believing that the dream of a egalitarian society was reality.
Unfortunately, this was a naïve notion and thanks to the recent SCOTUS decision, BIPOC women in particular now have fewer rights.
‘Dutchman’ on the American stage
The evening opens with an artistic performance that reminds modern audiences that the 1964 drama we are about to see is a direct descendant of Africans enslaved against their will. A group of black actors costumed in the starkest white dance across the ocean from a dappled blue floor encased in smoke-filled beams provided by lighting designer Dalton Hamilton. They wiggle and contract in a vocabulary of movement drawn from traditional African footsteps to the incantations of a tribal shaman. His vocalization underpins the opening minutes as he crosses the length of the theater just steps from the audience. Alexander Jones’ choreography is a visceral choice, even if it diverges stylistically from what is to follow. However, it undoubtedly establishes a larger context for the piece. The civil rights struggles of 1964 echo-echo-echo the continuous loop to the original sin of 1619. A light-skinned dancer in a pre-war dress shows up, kicking high, lest we forget the iconography and source of oppression.
Theater works best outside the realm of realism, when the director and designers provide a visual metaphor for the themes of the play. Here, the elements of the New York subway are the slaver, the Dutchman of the title, which Baraka uses as a stand-in. The American Stage team went even further in abstraction. Set designer Teresa Williams’ subway car (where the action takes place) is above a huge African ceremonial drum with a spinning top and a series of hand-carved decorative storyboard panels lovingly created by Michaela Dougherty. The floating central platform is surrounded by a New York skyline with rows of skyscrapers rising above the ground. But they’re not made from the hard metal and glass we associate with the city. Instead, this Big Apple is constructed entirely from wooden planks to mirror the sleek hulls of the fast schooners that transported slaves in chained pairs from the African Gold Coast to our shores in the Triangular Trade. If you need a historical reminder, Google “1776 – Molasses to Rum”.
Adebowalé Adebiyi embodies the malleable Clay, the self-proclaimed Baudelaire of Harlem. He’s an intellectual quietly minding his own business in designer Natalie Burton’s bespoke three-button suit. Step into young predatory Lula (a splendid Shannon Mary Keegan) as a red-maned schizophrenic hippie celebrating the newfound sexual freedom of the 1960s. In her manipulative eyes, her sartorial splendor becomes a target of derision, a signifier of sexual Clay’s Uncle Tom. Baraka asks Lula to introduce iconic biblical apples as a prompting incident just so we get the point. This sets off a pulsating cycle, alternating provocative poses of overt seduction with despicable verbal abuse. It becomes a teasing game of cat and mouse until Clay can no longer tolerate Lula’s psycho-sexual torment. Their scenes crackle with energy. It’s more racketball than ping pong as the back and forth bounces wildly out of control in all directions. Every vile epithet in ’60s common parlance is tossed around like the popular lawn darts of the era. BTW, darts have since been banned for saving lives, unlike AR-15s, but I digress.
Lula mocks mild-mannered Clay as the aggression mounts until he becomes Baraka’s spokesperson. He explodes into a famously long monologue where all the pent up emotion turns into a dismantling of his white girl privilege, vomiting in powerful language, which increases the tension like a spring wound too tightly. To say more about what happens in this passive-aggressive flirtatious back-and-forth would spoil the many shocking moments the playwright squeezed into his sizzling script. Suffice it to say, after the “bite of the apple” all hell breaks loose, which the dumb set of subway riders do their best to ignore until they’re ordered out of the way. ‘to act.
After the play reaches its climax, director Erica Sutherlin adds to her artfully staged production by reminding us in a powerful and sweeping graphic montage spanning decades, that we still have miles to go for the “arc” of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Moral Universe” to complete his turn “towards justice”. It’s a cavalcade of painful images that bring us back to the present until we return to Baraka’s denouement with a surprise twist to a hip-hop beat. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had a choice. In our world of white privilege, it seems that for many black men, all roads lead to ruin. Like Clay, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.