A white woman eating an apple walks into a subway car and sits near a Black man. She alternatively taunts and flirts with him and offers him one apple, then another. By the end of their conversation, the Black man is dead.
When the Black Arts poet, playwright and activist Amiri Baraka debuted his play “Dutchman,” a taut one-act allegory about the state of race in America, it was 1964, the height of the civil rights movement, a time of political upheaval not unlike the one we’re in now. Yet the playwright deployed one of the most tried-and-true metaphorical conceits — the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which her eating a forbidden fruit causes the downfall of both, and ultimately all humanity.
Two recent digital productions of Baraka’s famous play, one by the Seeing Place Theater and a Play-PerView reunion reading of the 2007 Cherry Lane Theater cast, emphasized different aspects of the biblical story. One focused on the apple itself — the moment of temptation — while the other more subtly broke down the moments after those first bites, when Adam gains knowledge and understands the cost of it all.
But both productions reveal how Baraka’s Black Adam was never suited for Eden. In our racist America, he will always be damned.
In “Dutchman,” a Black man named Clay meets a white woman named Lula, who correctly guesses personal information about him, tries to seduce him and denigrates him for being an Uncle Tom, all while pulling out apples from her bag like a magician pulls rabbits out of his hat. When pushed too far by her increasingly racist declarations, Clay slaps Lula, and then delivers a long angry monologue that analyzes their racial dynamic. In response, Lula fatally stabs him and has his body tossed off the train.
The Seeing Place production, which starred Timothy Ware and Erin Cronican and was directed by Brandon Walker, highlighted the sexual friction between Clay and Lula. Cronican’s Lula gives Clay a lusty up and down, hungrily takes bites of her apple, a seductive smile creeping across her face. Ware’s Clay smirks gamely in response; he seems mostly unbothered by her odd diversions and casually racist remarks and appears to lust back. (Baraka’s text makes plenty of room for misogyny, drawing on a Bible tale that presents a sly, seductive and morally inferior female character; his work has also notoriously dipped into anti-Semitism, also present in “Dutchman.”)
By underlining the sexual power dynamic between the man and the woman, Walker’s direction simplifies the larger reach of the play and what the characters represent. The tension becomes less about the matchup of Blackness and whiteness in society than about the interracial fraternization of one Black man and one white woman.
The Play-PerView reading featured Dulé Hill (best known for TV’s “Psych” and “Suits”) and the stage mainstay Jennifer Mudge. Here the performers and the director Robert Barry Fleming artfully build Baraka’s world with characters who are notably hobbled by self-consciousness, the roles they play and the society that has determined who they are in relation to each other.
Hill’s Clay is composed, reserved and circumspect, volleying back Lula’s flirtations not so much out of desire but a cautious sense of curiosity. He isn’t so moved by her charms. And Mudge’s Lula is not simply Eve dangling the apple, but chameleonic in her modes of manipulation and occasionally even insecure and vulnerable herself. She visibly wilts during Clay’s monologue, before finally drawing out a knife and killing him.
Baraka’s play works only if the direction draws a clear causal line between Clay’s early reserve, his outburst and Lula’s fatal attack. This Adam is punished because he has not simply bitten the apple but received the self-awareness that comes with it.
Both productions, presented live on Zoom, effectively used subway backgrounds to create the illusion that the actors were sitting in the same space. In the Seeing Place’s take, the actors faced forward, as though sitting across from each other, so the loaded flirtation between them was even more exaggerated.
The Play-PerView production used a grainy, textured filter and positioned its actors side by side, delivering the lines to their left and right, so that the experience read as more natural and less self-conscious of itself as a Zoom performance — while still maintaining the necessary tension.
“I’d rather be a fool. Insane. Safe with my words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts,” Clay says, declaring that he’d rather play dumb, play white and, thus, play it safe. But he has still spoken out of turn. He’s revealed himself and all of the knowledge he has, and so he must suffer and die for it.
But whether or not Clay realizes it, his anger is beside the point. Perhaps Lula already knows, when she steps into the train car, that she is going to kill him, simply because he is Black. At the end, another Black man steps on the train; Baraka implies that he is Lula’s next target.
In this tale of Adam and Eve — and in the real story of America — a Black person who’s smart and well aware of his position and willing to speak out is danger, a fire waiting to be extinguished. But even more frightening, a Black person may be killed simply because, like Adam biting the apple and getting punished with the curse of mortality, Black death has become a perverted inevitability of life in America. Here’s the story: We do or we don’t take a bite of the apple, but either way we choke.
Streaming through Aug. 13 on Play-PerView.
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