The Racial Parallels Between “Dutchman” and “Get Out”

Poster for "Dutchman"

By Kerby Marcelin

The blinding cinematic rapier reddened by the wonted eeriness of the horror genre, “Get Out” gashes through the horror of racism. Jordan Peele’s brainchild, heedless of its inability to stitch comfort, is an artistic revolution. Before the 2017 flick, there was “Dutchman,” Amiri Baraka’s scorching 1964 theatrical study of how America softly, yet remorselessly shatters the spirit of the black man.

In the former, the black man escapes “The Sunken Place” in which he was psychologically trapped by his white girlfriend’s disingenuously progressive and stony-hearted family. He ultimately gets out. In the latter, he is not so lucky. The same white America that pretended to accept the black man before wrecking him 53 years ago is painted by Peele today. The truth holds, though it pains.  Directed by Alia Tejeda as a senior project, “Dutchman” blazes the Humanities Theatre with its originality, but barely serves the brutal honesty that spices the political allegory.

“Dutchman,” conveying the myth of the ghostly ship, The Flying Dutchman, is driven through a New York City Subway train. Clay (JaQwan J. Kelly), an erudite, but credulous black man contentedly reads a newspaper. Across the addled middle-classer, a stunning white woman (Caitlin McCutcheon)–seductively bites an apple, the fruit of temptation, with fire in her eyes–hot enough to propel him to steal glances. She drags the inferno to him as she joins and offers him an apple. The forlorn soul digs in, burning himself with her coquettishness.

She says her name is Lula, but is it? “I lie a lot,” she boasts. It helps her control the world. Like a free bird, she cackles. Lula flirts, jests, and taunts as the pair moves around the car. Clay is unbothered. In fact, he is hooked. The mysterious belle knows much more about him than he expected. Lula’s mastery of stereotypes leads her. Her subtly racist assumptions jolt to racial slurs. Clay defends his blackness. He verbally and physically attacks her. Passengers get on and off the train, ignoring the drama.  Clay’s glint of anger and courage arrive too late. Lula stabs him. How dare a black man criticize the way he is treated. How dare he gets angry. The passengers carry a lifeless Clay off the train. Lula sits and eyes her next victim (Demetrius McCray).

Tejeda allows Loughlan McLean’s bluesy trumpet to guide the charged action. The young director strings an electric aura–sultry, visually pleasing, and even rib-tickling. However, she forgets to throw the main ingredient, anger, in the mix. Towering over Clay’s anger,  Baraka’s masterpiece is angry at its core. The climax begs for a rougher tug. This student production vaguely treats the play as the unbending metaphor it is. Set designer Oran Gina’s train in the black box eases the actors’ movements and sparks intimacy between the audience and the performers. Nyle Farmer’s lights flicker like those of the TGV. The main light’s too fixed on the audience, causing discomfort. The costumes, designed by Rosie Alston-Follansbee, are contemporary, hinting at the relevance of the topic today.

McCutcheon, in her chic, cyan dress, captivates the theatre with her lucid and commanding delivery. Fearless, she moves big with panache while holding on to her harshness. Her ability to shift moods is unchained by her exaggerations. Kelly’s talent rings, but his passion stays silent, blurring the chemistry between the attractive pair. From the start, the feebleness of his projection and enunciation hurts the drama’s crispiness. When Kelly rebels against racism in Clay’s dramatic scene, the rage is trapped between his garbled words. His pacing renders the motifs of his speech unclear, narrowing his catharsis to a mere tantrum.

Clay has two choices. He can hide his blackness behind his sophistication and politeness or he can flash and defend it, which is dangerous; fatal in his case. When black people stand for their rights, it’s a threat to white America, even to the portion that appears to be accepting. “Dutchman” shows that with Lula as the deceitful and oppressive America. “Get Out” successfully drags this racial trauma to the reality of the present. Both pieces are designed to make you feel uncomfortable.  Despite its imperfections, Tejeda’s production marks the discomfort.