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Dutchman (Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones)

April 7, 2010

When the blurb on the back cover said Dutchman was “designed to shock–its basic idea, its language and its murderous rage,” I suppose I still wasn’t really expecting what happened. I mistook Clay’s impassioned rant as the shocking event, only to discover that (plot spoiler!!) the truly shocking event was Lulu’s murder and her complete lack of affect during and following this act. During Clay’s rant, though, I think the politics of Baraka’s work really comes through. This is not to say that I think Baraka actually believes that murder is the ultimately solution to the problems of African Americans, but I do think this rant is intended to snap the audience out of any sort of comfortable place they may have allowed themselves to fall into and to confront them — violently, in a way — with one side of this situation and a very powerful statement that race relations are not what some people would like to say they are, and that there is still a very present and deeply felt problem in modern-day America (especially give the play’s original performance date of March 24, 1964). For me, the point at which Baraka’s drama really hit me over the head with its vehemence was toward the middle/end of Clay’s speech when he says:

If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors. No grunts. No wiggles in the dark of her soul. Just straight two and two are four. Money. Power. Luxury. Like that. All of them. Crazy niggers turning their backs on sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane. (35)

While I don’t believe Baraka meant these words literally, the idea itself is extremely powerful: all one group of people needs to cure them of their forced insanity is to eliminate the other group. The two cannot coexist — not in the way they have been, anyway. I think what makes this play all the more gripping is the fact that the problem is clearly nowhere near being solved. Clay’s body is dumped off the train — by the other passengers, not by Lulu! And when the play ends, she’s at it again with the Young Man who walked onto the train right after everyone else made their mass exodus. Haunting is about the only word I can think of to describe it, but it doesn’t come close to being a strong enough word for that label.

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