Tristan Bates Theatre
Reviewed – 10th October 2019
“almost every line is a riddle – it requires a great deal of deciphering that there simply isn’t time for”
For those unfamiliar with Amiri Baraka, he was a writer and poet prevalent in the 1960-80s who is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in African American culture. Important to many, he also cuts quite a controversial figure for some due to the anti-semitic, homophobic and misogynous content many people see in some of his work.
His 1964 play Dutchman is set entirely on a New York subway, here fashioned from orange metal seats which look distractingly modern and are not helped by the excess furniture at both sides of the stage – the set design (Edward Ross) could almost be confused for a living room. The story follows an encounter between Clay (James Barnes), a black man and Lula (Cheska Hill-Wood), a white woman. Throughout the play, Lula “the hyena” berates, torments and toys with Clay – her accosting of him becoming clearly racially motivated from the line “I know your type.” The play is essentially the duo’s power struggle – whilst Lula is dominant for most of it, she pushes Clay too far and he gains the upper hand, launching into an impassioned and violent speech about racial oppression, which is targeted not just at Lula but also the other passengers on the train, most of whom are white. These passengers come and go but have no lines, instead physically reacting to or ignoring Lula and Clay. The ensemble playing the passengers should be commended – their performances are convincingly crafted and contribute to the overall atmosphere.
Director Kaitlin Argeaux has clearly also worked well to help Hill-Wood bring the sociopathic Lula to life – she is playful and seductive, yet scarily unpredictable thanks to the masterful timing and precision of her mood swings. However, more nuance can be found for Barnes’ Clay. He responds well to Lula, allowing himself to be led into her deadly dance, but her description of him as a ‘meek, big-eyed man’ is the only dimension to Clay we see for the majority of the play. This means that the violent tirade he unleashes later on seems completely out of character, which makes for a somewhat jarring transition.
The main issue with Dutchman is that it’s extremely difficult to follow. The choice of language is intriguing, certainly, and Baraka’s poetic style is remarkably unique, but almost every line is a riddle – it requires a great deal of deciphering that there simply isn’t time for. To the uninitiated audience member, this creates confusion rather than empathy, and the finer points of the play are lost entirely.
It is also evident whilst watching Dutchman that the play is oppressively misogynistic. Clay’s monologue towards the end of the play is preceded by physically assaulting Lula to shut her up and the speech itself involves telling a young female bystander “I could rip your throat out”. Of course, this play is from a time where social attitudes were dramatically different to how they are today and perhaps we should not allow the questionable treatment of women throughout Dutchman to take away from the racial issues that it raises. Certainly, these issues are still relevant today – the need for the Black Lives Matter movement is proof enough of this. Crucially however, the era of the play is completely unclear in this retelling – and as a result to those who are unaware of who Baraka was, the sexism rife within is deeply uncomfortable.
This, coupled with the vague and confusing language and lack of a clear, overriding message begs the question: is Dutchman really the best choice of dedication to Black Lives Matter?
Reviewed by Sebastian Porter
Photography by Diana Patient
Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: