While I met the recently deceased Amiri Baraka some years ago, when I was an activist against the Death Penalty, I had never really explored his earlier work. His one act the play “The Dutchman” is an explosive political allegory that is a punch in the gut of American culture, exposing the dirt swept under our red, white, and blue rug! Written in 1964, directly preceding the Black Arts Movement, the artistic flank of the Black Power Movement of that Baraka helped to start, the play explores race relations through the use of a chance encounter between a Black man and a White woman on a New York subway. Their encounter starts light but quickly disintegrates into an exploration of the hidden dark thoughts of many White and Black Americans. The characters tear at each other’s psyches with the racial rage that is often thought, but never spoken.
Despite being mostly a conversation between two people, the play is riveting and keeps you guessing. Sharif Atkins shines as the young Black man caught in the crossfires of a seeming crazy woman, who is actually much worse. And Ambien Mitchell, is positively demonic in her portrayal of “Lula” the very embodiment of White American racism.
The subject matter and the language of “The Dutchman” is so incendiary that even 50 years later, people seemed to be afraid to speak freely about it. This was glaring apparent during the pre-show Q&A, which followed the performance. I was slightly disappointed, but not surprised, by some of the audience and cast statements. Mitchell, kept waxing on about it being a “human story not a racial one”, which clearly missed Baraka’s point. I also found it hilarious that one nervous male audience member also tried to reinterpret the very obvious ending to make it a less provocative statement on American racism.
“The Dutchman” is a must-see if you like entertainment that gives you to think and makes you examine yourself and your beliefs. With the recent murders of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and a host of other young Black men by racist White men, who were later exonerated or giving lesser sentences by misguided and/or racist juries, this play could’ve as easily been written today.