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Edgy racial drama keeps its'64 punch

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Edgy racial drama keeps its '64 punch

Baraka's 'Dutchman' comes to PerfNet



Few cultural spokesmen have raised eyebrows like LeRoi Jones did in 1963 when he dismissed white liberals as unworthy of black people’s trust.

It was a shocking utterance, coming at the height of the civil rights movement and well before black separatism became a popular socio-political stance. Yet Jones stuck to his guns: Soon after his 1964 play “Dutchman” - opening Thursday evening at Performance Network - had startled the theater world, playwright Jones divorced his white wife and legally changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka.

He also declared his belief that black self-empowerment - in the theater and in American society -was the sole means of dealing with an allegedly hateful white majority. Acknowledged by many as the pioneer of all-black theater, Baraka joined late-’60s rioters in his native Newark in a show of solidarity that got him clubbed and jailed by police.

Three decades later, the 63-year-old Baraka confines himself to the college talk circuit (He appeared in Ann Arbor a couple of weeks back), his call for black power now limited to lectures and essays. And though he hasn’t penned a play in years, “Dutchman” is still a gripping theatrical experience.

 “We’re doing it in-your-face,” says director Wallace Bridges, whose Eastern Michigan University cast will revive a recent EMU lab-theater production. “The play is written in your face, and we’re playing it as if the audience were passengers on a subway.”

In “Dutchman” young upper-middle-class black Clay (Jermone Rasheed Marshall) is joined on a New York subway car by Lula (Rathy Judge), a white woman whose trashy allure sharply contrasts Clay’s studious suit-and-tie decor.

Snuggling up, Lula seems casually interested in a carnal spree (“I’m prepared for anything. How about you?"). Yet as the trip progresses, her utterances grow increasingly abusive (She spouts the "n" word liberally), until it's clear something far more sinister than sexual sniping is in progress.

Bridges describes “Dutchman” as “part realism, part symbolism” played out in a subway mode that includes other passengers (Actors include Kelly Corson, O’dell Ruffin, Dennis Brunzell and Dwayne Berkely). “We’ve incorporated these cast members into the action a Bridges, “although I don’t want to give too much away. We’ve found ways for Lula to deal with them.”

Blond, vulgar and overtly erotic, Lula can be interpreted as a de-BARAKA monic extension of white-woman allure. As for Clay, “I’m convinced he’s a metaphor for the way in which our white-European-dominated culture tries to manipulate and control young, strong black men,” says Bridges. “So long as Clay wears the mask, plays the game with Lula, he can remain an Uncle-Tom negro.

“But if she goads him into a rage, into being true to himself, that gives her justification to remove the ‘problem.’ That’s her job.”

It’s a job played close-up. “We’re going to put part of the audience on stage. They’re going to be very close. When Lula insults Clay, she’ll be wisecracking straight to the audience, dealing directly with them. At the same time, the show’s subway atmosphere helps us play with some non-realistic approaches.”

Bridges is struck by the fact that “so many people still know this play,” despite Baraka’s long-ago departure from the theater scene. “I think we’ll do it justice. I know we’ll make it interesting.”

"Dutchman" will be performed Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 11-14 at Performance Network, 408. W. Washington St. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 general, $9 students and seniors. Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can Night. For details call 663-0681.