The Flying Dutchman:

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An Overview of LeRoi Jones’ Greatest Commentary on the Struggle of the Black Man and Racial Relations in Post-World War America

Before Amiri Baraka changed his name, he was LeRoi Jones: poet, playwright, and husband to Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish woman. Together LeRoi and Hettie edited the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen, which later published such literary icons as the Beat Generation’s Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The couple’s relationship strained as Jones fell in with the ideology of Malcolm X, breaking away from the Beat Generation and into movements such as Black Nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. Baraka’s play Dutchman, written as LeRoi Jones, opened at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on March 24, 1964 to intriguing acclaim for an off-Broadway production. This initial production sparked the beginning of Baraka’s revolutionary immersion into Black Nationalism, political theatre, and the eventual name change from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. Dutchman examines race relations in post-World War America and also commentates on the relationship between white women and black men and the implicit stereotypes presented. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman presents the suffering of the Black man in America in order to emphasize an illicit political agenda that caters to Black Nationalism.

Dutchman takes its name from the legend of the Flying Dutchman ship. The first slave-bearing ship was from the Dutch, and so the Flying Dutchman is a ship doomed to eternal sailing without ever finding safe harbor.[1] This is significant because in the play Clay is trapped on the subway car, much like a slave caught on such a ship. The fact that Lula attends to this, and keeps Clay bound to the ship, is indicative of white power over the Black man, a theme Baraka presents thoroughly throughout Dutchman and many of his other plays. The content of Baraka’s plays, and his frustration at a lack of Black representation in theatre, sparked the opening of the Black Arts Repertory and Theatre School in Harlem, New York. Baraka’s opening of the Black Arts Repertory in Harlem created a goal to “increase…black pride by utilizing theatre as a weapon against American racism.”[2] Theatre as a means for racial change and justice provided Baraka and other Black artists with the ability to present racial issues to a broader American audience, specifically white people who were not exposed to what the Black population endured. Throughout Baraka’s early career, this made former wife Hettie Cohen a target in the analysis of the two as an interracial couple. Dutchman and The Slave received much controversy about the couple’s private life, as both feature a Black man and a white woman as characters. Dutchman premiered at Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York City on March 24, 1964. Baraka’s drawing away from Hettie Cohen and interest in expanding the message of Black theatre led him to write his “Revolutionary Theatre” manifesto, inspired by his growing ties to Black Nationalism:

“White men will cower before this theatre because it hates them. Because they themselves have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating.”[3]

 

The growing cultural conditions around civil rights and Black Nationalism inspired Baraka to write plays and continue his work in fairly representing the Black human condition through the art of theatre.

Baraka came of age in a time when racial tensions rose in America. Many significant protests, events, and people influenced the way America saw race: the desegregation of state schools in 1954 and the famous 1955 Montgomery bus boycott by Rosa Parks, accompanied by Martin Luther King, Jr. The desegregation laws brought into effect were not always followed by white America. Certain events like this frustrated Baraka, who believed approaches should be more extreme. Malcolm X, an important icon and figure to Baraka, instilled a sense of Black Nationalism in many frustrated Black men, favoring a call to action or violence rather than peaceful protests. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Baraka left his wife Hettie in 1965, moved to Harlem, and permanently changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Imamu Amiri Baraka, later simply Amiri Baraka. Context like this affected the way the play was and still is staged: not only did the desire for power through Malcolm X’s agenda affect Baraka’s writing, but it also affects the interpretation of the play Dutchman. Moments like “My people. They don’t need me to claim them. They got legs and arms of their own. Personal insanities. Mirrors. They don’t need all those words”[4] present Clay taking ownership of who he is and telling Lula, or the symbol of white America, that she cannot tell him who his people are, that Clay is not the spokesman for all of Black America, though he suffers the same fate as many Black Americans. Baraka spawned the Black Arts Movement, revealing his revolutionary political agenda, inspired by Malcolm X’s work: “Dutchman represents Baraka’s move into political activism through drama.”[5] Baraka’s poetry never exposed the threads of society and how Black people felt like his drama did and continues to do. However, Baraka is often criticized due to his male-focused work; Black feminist Angela Davis believes this represents only a part of the Black population, excluding the female voice.[6] Despite this lapse of inclusion within the Black Arts community, Dutchman draws on racial tensions and questions the way white and Black people interact with each other, especially the relationship between white women and Black men. Lula is more than a woman, however: she is a device in which Baraka commentates on the stereotypes white people hold of Black people and why it feels as though Black people can turn to physical or linguistic violence after being faced with such, when they actually have never expressed these thoughts aloud.

A big influence on Baraka’s time was the music of jazz and blues. Baraka himself saw the two as “distinct Black addition[s] to American culture.”[7] The way America viewed jazz especially created controversy. White men sought to take it as their own and refused to give the Black community credit for that particular music style. In her memoir, Hettie Cohen asserts that “[t]o call jazz Negro music meant whites couldn’t play it and they wanted to; to call it Negro music also put on it what was put on Negroes themselves, and no one wanted that.”[8] She presents this struggle between white and Black America in claiming ownership of jazz music. Though the music itself was of Black people and culture, white people who clung to it had to find a justification for doing so without integrating themselves into Black culture specifically. White listeners and critics went as far to spread that there is “no one ‘real jazz,’ because like all art it was subject to change without notice, and their objective, in writing of it, was less to debate its absolute form than to consider it part of a wider arena.”[9] This is also evident in the play, when Clay says, “All the hip white boys scream for Bird [Charlie Parker]…they sit there, talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker,” while Charlie Parker rejects their devotion to him.[10] White men do not acknowledge the struggle of Charlie Parker, though they speak about him as a genius of music they consider raceless. The disturbance between Black and white musicians, and those of the Beat Generation, spawned Baraka’s initial thoughts on who he interacted with.

Baraka’s integration with the Beat Generation in the 1960s gave him an initial writing community, outside of his wife Hettie Cohen, with whom he could share ideas and express grievances about American society. The term “beat” came along due to John Clellon Holmes’ article “This is the Beat Generation”: “[beat] implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw…a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul…of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness…being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself.”[11] Baraka’s interactions with the Beats included publishing figures like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in his co-founded magazine with Cohen, titled Yugen. This immersed him into the Beat mindset and bohemian lifestyle: Baraka’s writing is raw, revealing a tiredness to the world of the way Black men are treated. However, despite this Beat-esque feel, Baraka’s writing speaks about action and activism, not wallowing in how his life has been beaten down by society. He holds onto the bohemian lifestyle of the Beats, though. Baraka held an attraction for white women and homosexual culture, having had an affair with Diane di Prima during the course of his marriage with Cohen; he “crossed over into the world of white hipness.”[12] This crossing over into white culture manifests itself in Dutchman.  Lula rips at Clay in the play, calling him a “liver-lipped white man,” “a dirty white man,” and “so full of white man’s words.”[13] Clay counters this with “If I’m a middle-class fake white man…let me be…let me be in the way I want”[14] as well as:

 

 “You don’t know anything except what’s there for you to see. An act.

Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart. You don’t ever

know that.”[15]

 

This exemplifies what Baraka repeatedly aims to get at, that white people pretend to know a Black man’s struggle, but they never acknowledge it; they are, in fact, what provokes and controls that struggle. Clay’s character acts white so as to fit in and also because that is how he has grown up knowing how to survive, and this is reflected in Baraka in his time with Cohen and the Beats. However, after a trip to Cuba in 1960, Baraka questioned his position in the white world where he made his successful career, emphasized in Dutchman. Dutchman was his last play before divorcing Hettie Cohen, moving to Harlem, and changing his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka.

Staging Dutchman is simplistic and does not require elaborate costumes or set. The 2007 revival production at Cherry Lane Theatre remained true to how the play would have been performed in 1964, given that specific theatre was Dutchman’s original performance venue. For costuming the 2007 production had Clay wearing a “dark suit” and Lula donning “a light summer dress” with her “long gold-streaked brown hair [in] a tangle of Medusa curls,”[16] much like the original description of the characters in the published play. Costuming the characters this way differentiated them and also reversed what appears to be the situation: Clay, the innocent one, was clad in dark colors, while Lula, the violent instigator—in more ways than one—was clad in seemingly innocent clothing. It also gave the audience a false illusion of what may happen, perhaps the typical stereotype that the Black man takes advantage of the white woman, if anyone had not heard of Dutchman before. Those who had not seen it—who could have assumed the white woman was the protagonist—may be completely shocked by the turn of events at the end simply because the costuming was deceiving, which makes the aftermath of the play all the more eerie, when Lula “gives him [the next young Black man] a long slow look.”[17] The Cherry Lane revival of the play took place in a simple subway car. In contrast, a recent 2013 revival of Dutchman took place in the Russian and Turkish bathhouses of the East Village in New York. In this case Clay and Lula were more modern and exposed, Clay in swim trunks and Lula in a red high-waisted, sheer bikini, donning a short pixie cut. As the play progressed, the director, Rashid Johnson, had the audience follow the characters from room to room, starting in a hot temperature bathhouse, moving into a cool passageway between acts, and ending in the Russian bathhouse, the hottest room in the facility. This unconventional staging put the audience immediately and intimately in reach of what the play speaks about; Johnson desired “to create a performance that might largely live by word of mouth—because so few people would be seeing it, and even those with tickets might not be able to endure the entire play.”[18]

The set of the 2013 bathhouse production differed greatly from the set of the 2007 revival of Dutchman. Scenic, lighting, and projection design worked together in the 2007 production to create a simple yet ethereal atmosphere:

 

“Projected across two panels blocking the stage are images from the New York subway system. The houselights flash and then darken like the lights of a subway car. A tall elderly black conductor (Paul Benjamin) enters the theatre and walks down the aisle with a Bojangles-like strut and shuffle. Pushing the two panels aside and disappearing from view, he leaves us in a subway car with Clay (Dulé Hill).”[19]

 

The use of the houselights to act as a subway car immersed the audience in the situation of the story, as though they were the other passengers on the subway witnessing Lula’s deception of Clay and his death at the end of the play. This choice boldly pointed out the responsibility every human being has—whether white or Black or another race—in regards to reoccurring violence inflicted upon the Black community from the white majority. It is inclusive of everyone and does not excuse them: it creates witnesses out of the audience. The 2013 bathhouse production also embodied this inclusion, as the audience is practically skin-to-skin with each other and with the actors, sweating, stripped down to minimal clothing in order to withstand the hot temperatures. There were no lights to light the actors, no sounds of the subway, just the sounds of the bathhouse around them. The set was minimal, simply existing in the bathhouse. In this case people must put aside what they thought of one another based on the color of their skin and must simply experience, side by side, this strange and horrifying theatrical experience, happening as far away from a theatre as one could get.

Acting-wise, Hilton Als—the reviewer of the 2007 Dutchman production—did not feel as though the acting collectively would match up with what would have been present in 1964. He saw Lula as utilizing her space and character well, by sitting “a little too close to Clay” and acting as an “urban Eve.”[20] However, Clay’s final monologue appeared as a “disservice” because “Hill [the actor] overplays Clay’s ‘niceness’,” which did not build up to his explosion at Lula at the end of the show to embody what Baraka intended: “the outpouring of a soul filled with a rage that is too great to express or expel.”[21] It is true that the play builds up to this moment in which Clay finally must burst with everything he has been holding inside, from society, from his current situation, and from himself. Explicit lines like “You fuck some black man, and right away you’re an expert on black people”[22] and “My people. They don’t need me to claim them. They got legs and arms of their own”[23] emphasize that outpouring Als speaks about in his New Yorker article, with a rage that feels almost unnatural but that still naturally and organically emerges within the actor portraying Clay. This cry of Black males must resonate even with white audiences, must make them think twice about how they go about their lives and interactions with others, must make them wonder if their own behavior invokes these thoughts in Black members of society.

Directors of certain productions take the same themes and implement them in various ways. The 2013 bathhouse production uprooted the original set and placed it in a modern-day time and facility, where the characters themselves were more stripped down than they appeared in the play, unclothed and hot. Temperatures in the play rose as the temperatures in the bathhouse did. Director Rashid Johnson urged the actors to “absorb the culture of the ‘schvitz’,” which is Yiddish for ‘sweat.’”[24] He firmly believed that “[t]here’s no way to be in here and not participate…This place participates you” and that “[y]ou’re involved, whether you like it or not.”[25] This speaks not only of including the audience regardless of their race, but it also holds white people responsible for the stereotypes presented, and should that make them uncomfortable, or should the heat itself, they leave, sweating, with it on their mind. By putting the play in a completely different setting, Johnson physically compressed the ideas and emotions Baraka presents in the play and forced people to come to terms with it, whether they were comfortable with exposing themselves in that light or not.

The intended audience for Dutchman was everyone, but while white audiences played a significant role in the reception of Baraka’s play, Baraka’s real ambition was to “make theatre by and for black people.”[26] This included opening up opportunities for Black actors, as well as providing a voice for the Black community through the transformative art of theatre. Baraka’s white colleagues and the general white audience were shocked, fearful, and in awe because Dutchman and Baraka’s other plays redefined their original belief that art was “raceless.”[27] Instead, audiences now saw, though staged, the Black struggle in America: “he has come to us in his writing,” therefore “[w]e must assume that he has something to say to us [white America].”[28]  Thinking this way lent even more strength to the Black Arts Movement, making Dutchman a game-changer in the way theatre was and is received and enacted upon. A white audience may react shocked and upset at the violence brought forth in words and actions in Dutchman, but it provides them a way to educate themselves and, hopefully, to take action against the way Black people are treated in this country. The play itself also speaks to those who are Black, bringing forth the notion that Black people play into white society, attempting to conform to their oppressors. Baraka insists this is not the way to go, and he presents this through his character Lula, who represents white America, when she says, “And we’ll pretend the people cannot see you… And that you are free of your own history.”[29] Baraka seeks to wake up Black audiences to own their identities and culture, like he himself did, rather than succumb to the white world.

Dutchman is an American play, but more than that it is an American play of oppressing the Black population through words, stereotypes, and violence. It speaks to the issue of race in America and takes it to the extreme—even its misogynistic portrayal of Lula as a woman is a device to provoke conversation about racial relations between white and Black Americans, as well as the recurring violence present even in modern-day America. This play is significant in performance, both then and now. More than the aspects of its staging and its direction—which can be taken in many different ways, given the flexibility of the costuming and set—the language and the symbolism of it embodies a need for America to acknowledge that perhaps not much has changed between then, 1964, and now, 2016.

A performance of Dutchman today would more than likely not differ too much from the 2007 production at Cherry Lane Theatre. The use of the lights on the side of the audience would flash as though they are in the subway too, or as though they are on the platform, to witness what will unfold over the course of the play. A question a director may ask themselves is where to set this play: it is performed most often in differing time periods, from the 60s—when it was written—to modern-day America, still applicable, given racially charged events and police brutality. The words in the script feel just as relevant as they were back then, and to bring up the issues of civil rights and the struggle of the Black man is to bring up the same issues happening right now. The use of the bathhouses for the 2013 production provided a new floor, both literally and figuratively, for people to discuss racial relations in modern-day America. That being said, the 2013 production is odd, given where it was set, but it opened the doors to produce the play more abstractly and in different settings other than a subway car: a bathhouse is as much of a trapped ship as a subway. Regardless of where it is set, given recent events in America surrounding Black men and women brutally injured or killed by police offers, this play has much to offer in the continuing discussion around stereotyping Black Americans.

Amiri Baraka began as LeRoi Jones, working with Hettie Cohen and the Beat Generation to produce new work about what it means to live in post-World War America. For Jones, later to be Amiri Baraka, this meant exploring his identity as a Black man, and his inherent battle living in America and living amongst white people who did not recognize this struggle of his. With his play Dutchman, Baraka utilized the influence of Malcolm X and the Black Nationalism movement to portray for a wider audience what Black men must face in America, at the hands of violence and manipulation from the white population. The symbolism of the Flying Dutchman—a slave ship doomed never to find safe harbor—demonstrates a deep, conscious thought on Baraka’s part, bringing the past of Black men to 1964 and, eventually with modern productions, to the present. Productions range greatly in costume, set, and lighting design, but they all stay consistent with the message the play offers through its language and the interactions between the characters Clay and Lula. Given the ending of the play, in which Lula readies herself to seduce and manipulate another Black man, this is not over, and it will not be over until people, both Black and white, take action on it. More than anything, the play remains a relevant piece of theatre, in studying its social context and history, as well as how it is applicable to present day. The fact that this play has many productions forthcoming in 2016 speaks to its significance and the action it calls the country to take in regards to changing the way Black men—and women, though Baraka does not include this in the play—are treated in a predominantly white country that needs to rethink their actions and educate themselves on the Black American’s struggle.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Als, Hilton. “In Black and White.” New Yorker, February 5, 2007.

 

“Amiri Baraka and The Dutchman.” University of Wisconsin Parkside, September 29, 2015,

<http://homepages.uwp.edu/martinm0/FALL%202010/DRAMA/

Notes%20on%20Amiri%20Baraka%20and%20The%20Dutchman.pdf>.

 

Atallah K.A. Diyaiy, Sabah. “The Dilemma of the Black Man in LeRoi Jones’ Play

Dutchman.” Al-Fatih Journal 40 (2009): 13-22.

 

Baraka, Amiri. “The Revolutionary Theatre.” Liberator, July 1965. Accessed September 29,

 

Barrios, Olga. The Black Theatre Movement in the United States and South Africa. PhD dss.,

Universitat de Valencia, 2008.

<http://gredos.usal.es/jspui/bitstream/10366/116100/1/Black%20Theatre%20Movement%20PREPRINT.pdf>.

 

Costello, Donald P. “LeRoi Jones: Black Man as Victim.” ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary

& Artistic African-American Themes. Printed 1968, accessed online September 29, 2015.

<http://www.nathanielturner.com/leroijones2.htm>.

 

Holmes, John Clellon. “This is the Beat Generation.” New York Times Magazine, November 16,

 

Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.

 

Jones, LeRoi. The Dutchman & The Slave. New York: Harper Perennial, 1964.

 

Kennedy, Randy. “A Play That’s Sure to Make You Sweat.” New York Times, October 1, 2013.

 

Kern, Douglas. Killing in the Name of Struggle: Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre. York:

University of York, 2014. <http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6365/1/Final%20Submission%20PhD.pdf>.

 

McGee, Celia. “A Return to Rage, Played Out in Black and White.” New York Times, January

14, 2007.

 

Nelson, Hugh. “LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman: A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship.” Educational Theatre

Journal 20.1 (1968): 53-59.JSTOR. Accessed September 29, 2015.

<http://www.jstor.org/stable/3204875>.

 

Pisano, Claudia Moreno, ed. Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters.

Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.

 

Rice, Julian C. “LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman: A Reading.” Contemporary Literature 12.1 (1971): 42-

  1. JSTOR. Accessed September 29, 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1207453>.

 

Rodgers, Constance. “Dutchman.” Front Row Center: New York Theatre.

<http://thefrontrowcenter.com/2014/05/dutchman/>.

 

Soloski, Alexis. “Down in the Subway, Strike Again.” New York Times. May 7, 2014.

 

 

 

Footnotes

[1] “Amiri Baraka and The Dutchman,” University of Wisconsin Parkside: 2,

http://homepages.uwp.edu/martinm0/FALL%202010/DRAMA/Notes%20on%20Amiri%20Baraka%20and%20The%20Dutchman.pdf, (accessed October 20, 2015).

[2] “Amiri Baraka and The Dutchman,” University of Wisconsin Parkside: 1, http://homepages.uwp.edu/martinm0/FALL%202010/DRAMA/Notes%20on%20Amiri%20Baraka%20and%20The%20Dutchman.pdf, (accessed October 20, 2015).

[3] Amiri Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre,” Liberator, July 1965, 1.

[4] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 35-36.

[5] Douglas Kern, Killing in the Name of Struggle: Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre (PhD diss., University of York, 2014.

[6] Douglas Kern, Killing in the Name of Struggle: Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre (PhD diss., University of York, 2014.

[7] Douglas Kern, Killing in the Name of Struggle: Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre (PhD diss., University of York, 2014.

[8] Hettie Jones, How I Became Hettie Jones, Grove Press: New York, 22.

[9] Hettie Jones, How I Became Hettie Jones, Grove Press: New York, 23.

[10] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 35.

[11] John Clellon Holmes, “This is the Beat Generation,” New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952.

[12] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[13] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 31.

[14] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 32.

[15] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 32.

[16] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[17] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 37.

[18] Randy Kennedy, “A Play That’s Sure to Make You Sweat,” New York Times, October 1, 2013.

[19] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[20] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[21] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[22] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & the Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 34.

[23] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman & The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 35.

[24] Randy Kennedy, “A Play That’s Sure to Make You Sweat,” New York Times, October 1, 2013.

[25] Randy Kennedy, “A Play That’s Sure to Make You Sweat,” New York Times, October 1, 2013.

[26] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[27] Hilton Als, “In Black and White,” New Yorker, February 2007.

[28] Donald P. Costello, “LeRoi Jones: Black Man as Victim,” ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes (in print 1968), accessed September 29, 2015.

[29] LeRoi Jones, Dutchman and The Slave (New York: Harper Perennial, 1964), 21.

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Alyssa Cokinis

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Alyssa Cokinis is currently an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, pursuing a Bachelor’s in English/Creative Writing and Theatre Arts. In addition to her essay in Beatdom, her poetry has been published in The Light Ekphrastic (as Lyzzy Redd), UIowa’s Ink V and VI, and Ant vs. Whale. Alyssa’s interest in the Beat Generation began when she read Ginsberg’s Howl as a high school senior, and they have been influencing her writing ever since. In fall 2014 she took a college literature class on the Beats and fell deeper in love with their complex histories, connections, and writings.

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