Pictured: (l-r) Anna Oakley, Richard J. Burt, Frank Oakley III, and Laura Jacobs. Photo by Jillian Shoptaw.
Amiri Baraka’s Obie-Award Winning play DUTCHMAN, set in a New York subway in 1964, is a 55 min non-stop train ride that knocks you around, leaving you at your final destination, shocked as the all-to-familiar spider devours her prey and moves on to the next. It’s not an easy ride, but you need to take it.
Written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and while Baraka was still using his birth name LeRoi Jones, DUTCHMAN tells the story of Clay (Frank Oakley III) and Lula (Laura Jacobs), two strangers who “meet” on a subway train headed to Jersey. Clay, a Black man, finds himself attracted to this urban Eve, who is literally producing apples all over the place. Within minutes Clay bites down on the forbidden fruit. Lula falls all over Clay, seducing and taunting, she jumps from hot to cold. She’s a racist, she insults his manhood and she makes assumptions based on the fact that he is Black and he is a man. Assumptions, unfortunately, 21st-century Black males still struggle to break free from.
You’d think all of this would be enough to prompt Clay to get off at the next exit, but he doesn’t. Lula is the tempting apple in his garden of Eden. And it’s here where Baraka starts to represent Lula as more than just White. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Baraka said this of Lula, “I saw her as a metaphor for America. She represented temptation and seduction, but also death, if not of the flesh then of the spirit.”
And it’s here, in Kansas City, that KC MeltingPot Theatre has crafted a production and cast fitting of Baraka’s sentiments.
Jacobs, who hits the ground running from the moment we hear her heels on the floor, explodes as Lula. She takes the role, and with the guidance of Director Nicole Hodges Persley, goes to the edge and jumps. As actors, we are often asked to go to places that require a certain level of acceptance and ugly, and Jacobs goes to that place. When she launches into her “Uncle Tom” monologue, the level of shock and anger she incites, both onstage and in the audience, is horrifyingly beautiful.
Oakley’s Clay matches Jacob’s Lula dollar for dollar, and when he finally lays it all out there, it’s like a volcano erupting. You are looking at Clay as he strips away the layers of his three-piece suit, and hearing so much anger, pain, hurt, resentment, misunderstanding, and fear that you begin to wonder where Clay ends and Baraka’s personal inner-monologue begins.
Oakley has a lot of raw talent, but I found it hard to understand him towards the end. As his passion raged, a lot of Oakley’s words started sitting in the back of his throat, especially when he was yelling. When he had his breath support under control and was connected and grounded, we heard him loud and clear. And it was powerful. I have a feeling as Oakley continues to explore this monologue he’ll figure out the rhythm and find the needed support to reach those high moments of passion without sacrificing the words.
With a minimalisticly perfect set by Assistant Director Rana Esfandiary, KCMPT’s production does exactly what it needs to do – it lets Baraka’s words speak for themselves. It’s easy to say plays like this are needed and relevant given today’s climate, but that does a disservice to the legacy and impact DUTCHMAN had on theater in 1964 and has continued to have for generations. A good play, a classic if you will, never stops having something to say, no matter what social or political world we live in. Baraka hit on something that has continued to ring true for over 50 years, and KCMPT has hit on something that the Kansas City community would benefit from seeing.