Elsewhere Theatre explores relevance of 1964’s ‘Dutchman’

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Bowling Green State University’s Elsewhere Theatre presents “Dutchman,” playwright Amiri Baraka’s searing look at race relations in the United States during the civil rights era, in an exploration of identity and conformity.

Performances are at 8 p.m. March 23 and 24 at the Wooster Street Center, 1124 E. Wooster St. in Bowling Green Tickets are free and admission is open to the general public. Due to the portrayal of violence and strong language, no children under 13 will be admitted, and viewer discretion is advised.

A one-act play, “Dutchman” dramatizes an encounter between a middle class African-American man and a bohemian white woman as an absurdist ritual on the New York City subway. Originally produced in 1964, Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, introduced the Black Nationalist ideology using theatre as a site in which to view social issues that concerned perceptions of race.

The main character, Clay, performed by BGSU sophomore Kevin Lewis, struggles to reconcile his life beyond the racial conformity of the civil rights era. In accordance with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech, he has chosen to live in a reality where he will not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. As a result Clay openly holds no torches for “his people,” opting instead to “be who I feel like being.”

Lula, performed by BGSU sophomore Allison Kump, relentlessly disparages his actions, proclaiming him “a dirty white man.” Ultimately, Clay’s idealism is “violently silenced” by the multicultural majority inhabiting the subway, who refuse to allow individualism to blur the lines of the established racial order.

In 2012, issues of identity and conformity, though not as arresting as in 1964, are particularly relevant in terms of how these issues are approached. “Even the president must choose an ethnic identity that meets the expectations of his constituency,” Director Michelle Mensah notes. “President Obama is a bi-racial man. What does that say about the young black man on the subway? What chance does he have in a society if he refuses to live in the world of the established order? No one can play both sides, no matter how hard they try.”

In this light Mensah seeks to frame Baraka’s vision for modern audiences.

The production is a part of an ongoing interdepartmental dialogue on the BGSU campus. The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) has been instrumental in using it as a learning tool to promote a shared understanding of diversity and inclusion among the cast and crew, who have engaged in dialogue facilitated by the multicultural affairs office, including diversity-building workshops led by OMA liaison and Assistant Director Chanelle Vigue, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in theatre and film.

Due to the violent nature of the show, both theatre and OMA staff are working with the BGSU Counseling Center for on-site services to audience members following each performance.

Dr. Marcus Sherrell, an associate professor of theatre and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will also lead a post-show discussion following the performances.

“Dutchman” is produced by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

The Elsewhere season is sponsored by the BGSU Department of Theatre and Film to foster the development and learning opportunities for writers, directors, and performers in the BGSU community.

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(Posted March 20, 2012 )