Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman may have been written during the civil rights era but it has lost none of its power as it holds a magnifying glass to the current social issues facing the black community.
It is the story of a young black man called Clay and his encounter with a strange white woman on a train journey through New York. When the play was first performed it had the Black Civil Rights Movement as its social back drop. Today we see the same issues of that era being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Outer Gaea and Theatre Libre have taken this 1964 play and given its uncomfortable subject an eerie feel. The way the company uses the background characters in an almost claustrophobic proximity to the main cast as observers draws to mind the phenomenon of the twitter audience. It feels as if the commuters are there to remind us of the way social issues are now put on trial on social media only to be judged by TV figures who court controversy on a global stage.
While people of colour such as Stormzy, Naga Munchetty, Monroe Bergdorf and even the Duchess of Sussex are often lampooned by the media for highlighting race issues and calling out racism, often white political leaders racist transgressions are quickly glossed over. The majority of the time it is white figures who get to control and manipulate the black narrative.
This is similar to something that we see played out on stage by Lula as she goads and prods Clay. Her voice and her opinion matter while she mocks Clay’s responses. It is something that Chaska Hill-Wood does well as she gives her portrayal of Lula the same energy of a cat pawing at its prey. She dances back and forth between fetishizing Clay’s sexuality and trying to paint him as inadequate both in relation to his gender and race which quickly pushes him in to a situation where the other passengers see him as a threat. She, the white character, creates the way the passengers view this young black man’s story. This hits hard as we think about how many times viewers have been told how they should respond to a racist comment or incident concerning a person of colour by a privileged white voice on breakfast TV while black activists are often painted as being hysterical.
James Barnes creates a Clay that you could liken to black public figures both past and present. He is a young black man with a voice that draws striking attention to the injustices white privilege has ignored. He is continually prodded by Lula in to repressing his anger until he finally gives his rage voice. We see the background actors struggle to react to Clay with a level of fear and lack of empathy that echoes what we see on social media platforms. His fate echoes that of those people of colour who haven’t been given deserved justice by racially bias legal systems and like those victims he is quickly forgotten so society can move on to the next public outrage.
Although I was a little irritated by the stage set up, this production of the Dutchman delivers a performance with acting that is committed and intense. The play has a duration of about fifty minutes and it leaves the audience feeling like powerless witnesses. It is Barnes’ performance that leads the play to deliver a final punch that made me feel the kind of anger that sits uncomfortably like a physical lump in the throat.
See Dutchman at The Tristan Bates Theatre from 8th-26th October 2019. Tickets are £10 and can be purchased The Actor’s Centre. Click here to be taken to the site.