In 1964, when he was still known as Leroi Jones, controversial poet/activist Amiri Baraka made his legit reputation with “Dutchman,” a 55-minute howl against the damage America inflicts on black men. Rightfully canonized as a major work of political art, the play takes a simple premise — a black man and a white woman meet on a subway car — and makes it ferocious. That anger can still be felt, if only intermittently, in the revival at Cherry Lane, where the show premiered.
Every morality tale needs a good villain, and as deadly temptress Lula, Jennifer Mudge becomes the wicked core of this production. Slinking onto the subway car, munching an oh-so-symbolic apple, she could singe the bookish young Clay (Dule Hill) with her allure.
Playing a character that’s essentially a metaphor — Lula represents a white America that teases black people with acceptance before destroying them — Mudge opts for intelligence over vampiness. She flashes a knowing smile just before she shows some leg, aware that she’s trapping a man she loathes for having education and sophistication. Even when Clay erupts, trying to choke her, the steel in Mudge’s eyes reiterates who’s in control.
Thesp makes Lola seem dangerous. So in this play, at least, white people truly are believable as a threat, and that makes Baraka’s arguments resonate.
His politics might thunder if Hill, best known for his work on “The West Wing,” were equally convincing. However, the thesp cannot match the size of Clay’s climactic scene, when he drops his “white-friendly” politeness and launches a lengthy screed about simmering racial rebellion. Hill’s words tumble out too quickly, sometimes getting garbled. The individual thoughts in his speech get lost, reducing his catharsis to a tantrum. Instead of a symbol of all the mangled black spirits and minds, Hill seems like a regular guy having a bad day.
Director Bill Duke clearly believes in the play as a metaphor, since his choices are all so stylized. His technique is effectively creepy when Paul Benjamin, as a train conductor, wanders through, bathed in red light and dancing a strange shuffle step. He’s like a specter of the legacy that soon will devour Clay.
Often, though, Duke’s heavy touch distracts. Characters keep turning to deliver their speeches to the crowd, belaboring the contempo relevance. The technique is so jarring that it’s easier to focus on what the director is saying than to listen to the play itself.
The designers, too, are clever at the expense of the material. Aaron Rhyne creates a looped video of subway platforms and tunnels to run behind the train car, slowing down and speeding up with every new station. The detail is meticulous, but it’s also showy, crowing for attention as the actors try to work.
Similarly, Jeff Croiter’s lights are heavy on the “realistic” flickering of public transit, but realism contradicts the play. Every time the design brings a knowing chuckle about how subways really work, it stifles a still-powerful protest against cultural inequality.