The subway may be an edgy experience on a good day, but the 1964 encounter between a black man and a swivel hipped white woman, at the center of LeRoi Jones' allegory, Dutchman, may terrify today's rush hour straphanger. As mounted by the consistently wonderful Classical Theater of Harlem in tandem with National Black Theater, this 50th anniversary production of Dutchman is the most gripping 45 minutes in town.
A man, Clay (Sharif Atkins), rides the "flying underbelly of the city" on a hot summer evening, reading his magazine, when a vixen-like woman catches his eye. She says her name is Lula (Ambien Mitchell), but then again, by her own boast, she always lies. Take note: she's eating a very red apple, and offers him a bite. She may be Eve in the garden, or that malicious witch in Snow White. Either way, no good can come of this, as the astute audience well knows; with other riders, including the affable conductor (Lorenzo Scott) ignoring the crazies, the tension mounts as we witness just how bad this coupling will go. Strewn with carefully curated litter, Christopher and Justin Swader's evocative set, and Eric Sluyter's duly menacing sound, the subway makes a scary backdrop, true to its day. Under Carl Cofield's direction, and with acting so fine, Jones' poetry transcends the play's historic racial and sexual politics, seeming antique and doomed to repeat-- like this ride -- endlessly.
Jones, in the 1960s was a powerful figure on New York's literary scene, in a biracial marriage with poet Hettie Jones with whom he had two children. He also fathered another child with poet Diane DiPrima, and worked with both women in small press publishing. Aligned with beat generation poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Jones was similarly influenced by jazz, until the assassination of Malcom X radicalized him into taking on a new identity as Amiri Baraka.
After a recent performance, a talkback revealed that Amina Baraka, Amiri's widow with whom he had four children, one of whom, Ras Baraka, is now mayor of Newark, said she did not much like this play, and wished they had chosen a different one. Amiri Baraka who died this past January had no part in the Dutchman production, but might have appreciated the tribute to his artistry.
Next up for CTH, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in Marcus Garvey Park's newly renovated outdoor theater.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.