Amiri Baraka published Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He’s appeared on the same bill as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. He’s won many of the most prestigious writing awards and fellowships in the world. Yet chances are you’ve probably never heard of him. “So why don’t people who are in the know, know about him?” asks Bruce Grund, who will be directing Baraka’s “Dutchman” this June. The usual brightness and energy on Grund’s face clouds over as he answers, “Cultural apartheid.”
If you have heard of Baraka, it might have been in 2002 when his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” brought him into the national spotlight. The Anti-Defamation League declared the poem to be anti-Semitic and Jim McGreevey, the governor of New Jersey at the time, passed legislation to remove Baraka as New Jersey’s poet laureate. But 2002 was certainly not the first time Baraka’s writing (or Baraka himself) was considered controversial. In his early career, his poems and essays spoke about violence towards white women, Jews, and homosexuals. Some lines from Baraka’s first poetry record, Black Dada Nihilismus: “Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats.”
“A lot of people probably wouldn’t touch this,” admits Grund about directing “Dutchman,” which he calls “a searing, shocking, explosive play about racial identity and racial conflict.” The one-act play, set in the pitch-black underground of the New York City subway system, is the disturbing and violent meeting between Lula, a white woman, and Clay, a bourgeois black man. Clay is an appeaser, desperately trying to exist in a white-owned world. When seductive Lula slides into the seat next to Clay on the subway, their conversation turns from verbal foreplay into a vicious racial confrontation. Like the legend of the Flying Dutchman—the cursed ship doomed to sail for eternity—the play is about the curse of history’s scenes repeating themselves.
Baraka wrote “Dutchman” in 1964, influenced by the whirlwind of pain and anger created by the lynchings that occurred in the South in response to the civil rights movement and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Patrice Lumumba (the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first Prime Minister). Reflecting on race relations in the United States almost 50 later, Grund remarks that some people seem to believe Obama’s election means the end of racism in this country. “No,” he says shaking his head. “Racism has very deep roots.”
Grund, artist-in-residence at the Trolley Museum of New York in Kingston, has arranged for the one-act play to be performed on a restored 1955 New York City subway car. The stage will be the subway car itself, and the audience will be seated as passengers. A disciple of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Grund believes that discomfort should be part of the theatrical experience. The play’s staging will mimic the claustrophobic discomfort of a subway car where an altercation is taking place. There is no barrier between actors and audience. Grund explains this will give “Dutchman” a sense of reality. “The drama will unfold around them, surround them, confound them, and astound them.” The play “needs to be seen. People in this country need to talk about race in order to get to the bottom of it.”
“Dutchman” stars Laura Love Kroll, head of SUNY Ulster’s drama department, and Lerone Simon. Six performances will be held Saturdays and Sundays, June 5 through June 20, at 7pm. Not recommended for children under 13. Trolley Museum of New York, 89 East Strand, Kingston, across from the Steelhouse. (845) 331-3399; www.tmny.org. $10.