In 1964, when his one-act Dutchman premiered off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Amiri Baraka was still LeRoi Jones—a 30-year-old black poet with a BA in English, a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force (for possessing Soviet propaganda), and a complicated interracial love life. You might also say he was full of rage, but that would be an awfully polite way of putting it. At least as he expressed himself in the play, he was an antiwhite, misogynist bigot. If James Baldwin was America’s literary Martin Luther King, Jones was its Nation-of-Islam-period Malcolm X.
And, like the early Malcolm, a talented provocateur. Now running in an American Blues Theater revival, on a double bill with Darren Canady‘s new TRANSit, Dutchman takes one of the foundational myths of Western civilization and throws it back in Western civilization’s damn face.
That tale is the one about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Clay (get it?) is a black college student in a suit, reading a glossy magazine under an Avis placard ad as he rides a pregraffiti-age New York subway train. He’s joined by Lula, a white stranger wearing a summer dress. She carries a bag full of fruit and insists on sitting next to him, though Chuck Smith‘s staging makes it clear she has plenty of other options. Flirtatious to bawdy, bubbly to peremptory, flip to vicious (and—in Amanda Drinkall‘s sharply modulated performance—seemingly condemned, like the Flying Dutchman alluded to by the title), Lula gives Clay a bite of her apple before pushing him so far off balance, stripping him so completely of his bourgeois aspirations that (as fearlessly embodied by Michael Pogue) he ends up doing gibbering plantation-slave imitations. Then she goes in for the kill.
Lula isn’t a nasty white woman. Or a crazy one, either. By giving her uncanny knowledge and a strange power over the other subway passengers, Jones makes it clear that she’s as much a principle as a character. Not just Eve, but also the snake, and not just the snake but evil itself. Ultimately, she’s nothing less than the figure familiar to us from the theology of Malcolm X’s mentor, Elijah Muhammad: a white devil.
TRANSit is Dutchman redux: a similar circumstance and dynamic brought into the present, with a different kind of gender fireworks added. The train riders this time include Ronald, a female-identifying black man who calls himself Veronica (a formidable, fragile Manny Buckley) and Veronica’s gay white clubbing friend Luke; the seducer role is filled by Lalo, a black-Latino kid who dances on the train for kicks and tips. The great and interesting difference between Canady’s piece and its inspiration is the lack of a clear enemy, despite plenty of sexual and racial tension. Without Jones’s unmitigated Evil One, all that’s left is the rage. v