Sunday, February 16, 2020

The system in a closed car: Monument Theatre Company presents 'Dutchman'

Lula (Dani Gibbs) feeds Clay (Jamaal McCray) the forbidden fruit in America's lost Eden.
Traveling by myself, I once toured George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, on a warm day when the grounds were streaming with visitors. You could have private moments outside or join a crowd lining up to go through the living quarters and other buildings. I was standing looking at the slave burial ground, and about thirty feet away a solitary black man, surveying the same scene, was musing wearily aloud: "Buried without their names — they didn't even leave them with their names."

Wanting to say something  sympathetic, I halted because it would sound like a lecture. It would have come across as "white-splaining" for me to say something about the system that worked those departed against their will and beyond their control, then buried them unidentified. It would have sounded insensitive to ask the rhetorical question: how could the owners of these people have memorialized them as individuals when they had been considered property all their lives?

When he still used his birth name LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka wrote "Dutchman," the white-hot one-act play that Monument Theatre Company is presenting at Indy Convergence through next weekend. The play homes in on a subway confrontation between two young people, a black man and a white woman. But it is caught up in the larger symbolism that relationship implies, and it has much to say about the system that has extended from slavery through its aftermath, up to the present day.

Jones was attracted to the larger implications of American race relations, which fed acute suspicion of the integrationist mindset. Shortly after "Dutchman" he left behind his bohemian lifestyle and Jewish wife to embrace black nationalism. He had been the foremost African-American ornament in the literary counterculture, and his drastic shift in priorities made him something of a Lost Leader, to borrow Robert Browning's designation of the aging Wordsworth. Jones' poetry, having shown signs of a whimsical, fragmented identity, became an explicit revolutionary tool, in Baraka's view and that of his associates. It also veered into anti-Semitism, which was to interfere with honors some felt he was entitled to later in life.

But the same system held sway throughout Baraka's evolution; the author's perspective on it changed. The changes are adumbrated in "Dutchman." Wrestling with myths that are part of racial oppression, Jones upends the dangerous stereotype of the rapacious black male lusting after white women. In this play, Lula is the sexual aggressor while Clay, the middle-class student in suit and tie, is uncomfortably cast as the victim of her desire. Her temptress style is symbolically linked to another myth: Eve, partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and persuading the first man to share in what became known as the original sin. Apples are munched with gusto as the dialogue gets under way, soon to be discarded as the interplay becomes more explicit.

"Dutchman" has the feel of a work in which the author is working something out for himself, based on his experience in and out of books and art.  The characters are vivid stand-ins for perspectives that have long shaped American race relations. Clay's occasional references to Jews hint at what became explicit animosity in Baraka's poetry. Clay's celebration of black musical icons — Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker — chafes at white fans' absorption of them and their likely misunderstanding of their cultural significance. Jones worked these themes hard in two 1960s books of sociology and music criticism: "Blues People" and "Black Music."

Directed with admirable focus and momentum by Shawn Whitsell, Jamaal McCray and Dani Gibbs handle well the range of exhibitionism and reserve the characters go through, provoked by each other and (more important) America's unresolved racial divisions. Fewer instances of the mocking chuckle or snort Lula tags onto nearly everything she says at first would have been welcome, but there is no question the character came on as a full-throttle femme fatale.

Counterpointed to her in the performance I saw Saturday are the caution and curiosity of Clay, obviously brought up to safeguard upward mobility while steering clear of white supremacy's obstacles as much as possible. He is goaded about his name, his fashion sense, his manners, and his social position. When he explodes, Lula falls silent; Gibbs' facial expressions aptly altered between pouting and fear. And McCray intensified his portrayal to make Clay's vision of murder credibly linked to his freedom. "Dutchman" suggests that neither incremental change nor righteous violence is the path forward.

Lacking the presence of a crowd of subway passengers onstage, the production's audience becomes fellow travelers. If you sit in a conspicuous place, you may find Clay in your face and tearing your program (standing in for the script's New York Times) from your hands, as I did. In a play so obviously symbolic, like a lab experiment in racism, the feeling that this drama is playing to an empty subway car is not a major issue. The battle is joined, and just before the final blackout, Lula is preparing to snare another victim (Deont'a Stark).

Almost contemporaneous with "Dutchman" is a Jones novel titled "The System of Dante's Hell." It's not a good novel, but a lively (and deadly) pastiche of scenes from the Newark ghetto of Jones' background — a kind of Dostoyevskyan notes from underground. But the title and some aspects of its structure reveal the author's consciousness that the system was rigged against black people, and that the pathology had been internalized.

Whether enslaved or subsequently, African-Americans still wrestle with a vast conspiracy against their full humanity. The man I wished I'd spoken to at Mount Vernon focused on the visible lack of this recognition at the slave burial ground, but I suspect he knew deeply what a major part of his own living heritage that anonymity was. Jones/Baraka chafed against the system that kept the conspiracy alive; he went in a direction it may be presumptuous of me to call wrong. But he continued to pursue a struggle that had a strong sense of justice behind it. If you attend "Dutchman," you will be powerfully forced to examine the myth he applied to that struggle.

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