Fly On, Dutchman!


{Flying} Dutchman 

Written by Amiri Baraka, Directed by Christopher-Rashee Stevenson

Presented by Theatre of War at The Tank, NYC

February 9-25, 2018

The 1964 play Dutchman was born from the pen of the prolific, impassioned, and often controversial Amiri Baraka, who died in 2014 after a nearly 50-year career as a playwright, poet, essayist, and activist. When Baraka wrote the play, he was still known as LeRoi Jones, but he would later change his name, hardening his commitment to revolutionary black nationalism. The 1970s would see his politics shift again, this time to Marxism, and he made forays into academia beginning in the 1980s and continued to publish new work right up until his death. Dutchman won an Obie award the year that it premiered, at New York City's Cherry Lane Theatre, and Theatre of War has revived this militant classic at the relocated and expanded The Tank, which serves emerging artists. This version incorporates some text from Jean Genet's Les Nègres, clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), the 1,408-performance NYC run of which from 1961-1964 overlapped with Dutchman's original run, and which also deals with racial identity and anger in blunt, provocative terms. The result, re-christened {Flying} Dutchman, is a taut 45-minute explosion of a play.

{Flying} Dutchman unfolds at and around a single table with a chair and a tabletop microphone at either end, lending to the proceedings the incongruous air of a hearing or deposition. The set-up is simple, though what arises from it is anything but: a white woman, Lula (Jonathan Schenk), strikes up a conversation with Clay (Malcolm B. Hines), a black man, whom Lula asserts has been staring at her through a window. She interrupts Clay in the midst of a sort of poetic monologue, a situation that is repeated in inverted form later in the play. Prone to unpredictable outbursts, Lula openly identifies herself as a liar, and some of both the tension and the comedy in the first half of the production come from the juxtaposition of this erratic, barefoot woman's proddings and pronouncements with the calm, suit-wearing Clay's even-keeled reactions. The aggressor in these interactions, she impels Clay to invite her to the party that he is headed to and describes the trajectory that their evening will take in increasingly heated terms. An Eve-figure in a red dress, she offers him an apple, which he accepts (he refuses, for what it is worth, another). Eventually, Lula pushes Clay far enough that it completely upends the dynamic to that point. There is a heavy strain of self-as-performance in this play, and both characters ultimately abandon that public-facing performativity (perhaps ironically making them more alike). One of the producers of Dutchman's initial run was Edward Albee, and there is something of Jerry and Peter's encounter in The Zoo Story in {Flying} Dutchman, their stripping away of the veneer habitually presented to society. What Lula and Clay uncover is deep-seated rage and the constant immanence of betrayal.

{Flying} Dutchman effectively keeps the audience unsure and off-balance. Even the sound design employs abrupt changes and plays with overtaxing the mics into which the characters sometimes speak; a surprise shift into choreography at one point similarly contributes to the feeling of instability. Schenk's performance as Lula openly and appropriately signals its own performativity, heightened almost from the first. Hines is remarkable, navigating a characterological about-face that unleashes a powerful intensity.

Theatre of War makes a few updates to Baraka's text, such as substituting Jordan Peele for Charlie Parker, as well as lightly streamlining some elements. These adaptations include cutting the original's ending, which suggests that what the audience has just seen is one revolution through an ongoing cycle, and replacing it with an incredibly effective staging decision. If Clay's derisively calling Lula Caitlyn Jenner means that Lula is indeed a trans woman, then {Flying} Dutchman also adds a bleak contemporary commentary on the hierarchy that exists even among marginalized groups and the fragility or even disingenuousness of allyship. {Flying} Dutchman preserves the incendiary, confrontational fury of the original, intensifies it with smart choices, and offers a discomfiting experience that denies closure. It may not be the typical experience for most NYC theater audiences, but that is perhaps to our detriment. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler