An encounter between a white woman and black man on a subway train is the simple scenario for this short play by Amiri Baraka. But from this, the writer previously known as LeRoi Jones, an important and controversial figure in African American literature, creates a dizzyingly complex text. Race, class and gender are all addressed in a piece that overflows with eroticism, polemic and violence.
As much a poem as a play, the figure of Lula, the woman who starts chatting up a random stranger, is a puzzle from the start. The contradictions don’t let up as the danger in the play increases. You could see Lula as an allegory, complete with an appetite for apples, as she moves from “party talk” to interrogating “manhood”. Truly repulsive – she’s insulting, self-aggrandising and morbid – she is purposefully difficult to watch. It is a mammoth role and taking the part Cheska Hill-Wood does well to keep up to speed with this most mercurial of figures. Most of what she says is so awful (the play is from 1964 and the vocabulary used is of that time), it can’t be easy to deliver and it is difficult to listen to.
As her “prey” Clay, James Barnes has just as tough a job and is similarly exemplary. Barnes has to move from being intrigued to provoked – his arousal at this oddest of women rising and falling – to a finale of explosive rage that is frightening. And all this in under an hour. Barnes carefully reveals his character’s depth as Clay’s own poetry unfolds. The suggestion that the character is a black Baudelaire, cruelly dismissed by Lula, comes to reverberate through the text in a fascinating manner that Barnes always factors in.
Kaitlin Argeaux, working with associate director Sheila Nortley, aids the central performers with a tightly controlled ensemble who make up other passengers. There are moments when you just pity them for being in the same carriage. And the role played by these fellow travellers in the shocking conclusion is, at least to me, a step too far. Dutchman is a piece crammed with argument and fuelled by an anger that doesn’t make it clear or easy. It’s so dense it becomes a text to read as much as a play to see. It’s only the strong performances that ensure this is a production worth watching.
Until 26 October 2019
Photo by Diana Patient