Dutchman

What happens when a young, educated Black man comes face-to-face with the embodiment of racism and oppression on a subway train? Enter Dutchman, a one act play produced in 1964 by civil rights advocate Amiri Baraka (1934-2014). Dutchman centers around the symbolic characters Clay and Lula as they dance around themes surrounding racial oppression and identity. 

Dutchman Dutchman

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Table of contents

    Content warning: racism and violence.

    Dutchman, Content Warning, StudySmarter

    Dutchman and Amiri Baraka

    Amiri Baraka, originally named LeRoi Jones, was an influential American poet, playwright, and social activist. He wrote the play Dutchman which premiered in 1964. The play, set during the Civil Rights Movement, is a potent critique of racism in America, and won an Obie Award the same year.

    Baraka's works often reflected his political beliefs, and Dutchman is no exception. It remains one of his most critically acclaimed works, illustrating the racial tensions of the era through a tense, one act play that continues to be relevant today.

    Dutchman Summary


    Overview: Dutchman
    Author of DutchmanAmiri Baraka
    Dat piublished1964
    Genre One act play
    Literary PeriodPostmodernism
    Summary of Dutchman
    • The play presents an emotionally charged interaction between Clay, a 20-year-old African American man, and Lula, a 30-year-old white woman. The play begins with Lula flirting with Clay, leading into an increasingly aggressive conversation that deals with race, class, and the power dynamics between them.
    • The confrontation ends tragically, presenting a critique of racism and the societal tensions of the time.
    List of main characters Clay, Luna, Passengers on Subway, Conductor, Young Black Man
    ThemesRacial Oppression and black identity
    SettingA Subway train in New York City in the summer
    AnalysisThe play presents a powerful analysis of racial tension, class conflict, and identity struggles in 1960s America. The play is steeped in symbolic meaning. The subway car itself serves as a microcosm of society, a confined space where escape from uncomfortable realities is impossible. Lula's predatory behavior towards Clay symbolizes the historical and ongoing exploitation and subjugation of African Americans by white society.

    The play Dutchman opens with Clay, a young college-educated Black man reading idly on the subway. He looks up and makes eye contact with a white woman with red hair outside. As the train pulls away from the station, he believes she was left behind, their brief encounter over. Soon, though, she makes her way to his seat while eating an apple. The beautiful woman, Lula, sits next to Clay and tells him she saw him checking her out.

    Dutchman, Woman holding apple, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Lula eats an apple as she boards the train and talks to Clay.

    Clay reacts respectfully and cautiously as Lula continues flirting with him. She offers him an apple from her bag and touches his thigh, inching her way to his crotch. He is slightly embarrassed but seems to welcome her advances. Lula begins to make assumptions about Clay's life—where he grew up, his friends, and where he's headed on the subway. He is shocked she knows these intimate details about him, and Clay convinces himself she must also be friends with his friend Warren.

    As the conversation progresses, Lula continues flirting while taunting Clay with racial remarks and insults. Lula asks Clay to invite her to the party he is going to, which he does. She then details how she wants to take him back to her apartment and have sex with him. Clay notices other passengers boarding the subway, and the seats fill up around them. He appears to become uneasy, but Lula just keeps talking.

    Dutchman, Drinks at party, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Lula insists Clay takes her to the party he's going to, and when he does, she chastises him for being too forward.

    Seemingly out of nowhere, Lula becomes entirely hostile and racist. She calls him racial slurs repeatedly and refers to his grandfather as a slave. Lula causes a scene, dancing and yelling on the train. A drunk man joins in while the rest of the passengers watch. Clay attempts to get Lula in her seat, but the drunk man fights back. Clay hits him in the head and slaps Lula across the face twice.

    Clay then launches into a monologue on his experience as a Black man in the United States. He says if Black people were allowed to murder white people, they wouldn't have to sing moving songs or write powerful poetry. Their feelings could be right out in the open. Clay asserts the only aspect of Black lives white people can see is the show African Americans put on for them.

    White people like Lula, he says, don't have any idea what the Black experience is really like. After considering how much easier life would be for Black people if they could kill white men, Clay states he wouldn't want to do that. He says he would rather be a fool than a murderer.

    The inclination towards violence was characteristic of black nationalism during the latter part of the Civil Rights movement. Black nationalism advocated for a separation from white society, economic independence, and the importance of racial pride for African Americans.

    After his speech, Clay gets up to leave the subway. As he bends over to gather his books, Lula stabs him twice in the heart. At her command, the other passengers throw the body out the window and get out at the next stop. Lula stays on the train until she sees another educated Black man enter and smiles at him. At the same time, the old Black conductor walks into their train car, acknowledges both Lula and the Black man, and continues on his rounds.

    Dutchman, Passengers on subway, StudySmarterFig. 3: At the end of the drama, other passengers on the bus throw Clay's body outside and get off at the next stop.

    Dutchman Characters

    The vast majority of the dialogue and action occurs between Clay and Lula. Other minor characters include the other passengers on the train, the conductor, and a young Black man.

    Clay

    Clay is a 20-year-old, college-educated Black man from New Jersey. He is calm and collected throughout the majority of the play, even as Lula taunts and flirts with him. He is open to the prospect of sex but slightly uncomfortable with Lula's actions.

    After constant racial jabs and outright hostility, Clay lashes out at Lula. He slaps her in the face and launches into a monologue about Black oppression at the hands of white society. He doesn't want to resort to violence, but he does think it would make life much easier for African Americans.

    Baraka's exploration of Clay's identity presents an analysis of the "double consciousness" faced by African Americans, as described by W.E.B. Du Bois. Clay is torn between assimilation into white society and solidarity with his own racial identity throughout the play.

    Clay's name is symbolic of the way Black lives are molded and manipulated by white society. Although he tries to stand firm, he is ultimately changed by Lula's manipulation.

    Lula

    A beautiful 30-year-old white woman, Lula antagonizes Clay throughout the entire drama. First she flirts with him and offers sex, but she quickly becomes hostile when he doesn't give in to her manipulation. She uses racial slurs and hurls insults at Clay, aiming to get a reaction out of him. When Clay does lash out at her, she kills him and moves on to her next target.

    Passengers on Subway

    The other passengers on the subway are mostly passive, but they get involved in covering up Clay's murder. They consist of both Black and white characters, and they seem to support Lula over Clay. They do as Lula tells them.

    Conductor

    The Black conductor of the subway acknowledges both Lula and the young Black man before continuing his job. He doesn't seem aware Clay has been murdered.

    Young Black Man

    A young Black man gets on the subway shortly after Clay is murdered. He carries books with him and appears to be Lula's next victim.

    Dutchman, Black man reading, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Lula appears to target young, unsuspecting Black men.

    Dutchman Symbolism

    Dutchman is revealed to be a symbolic, racially-centered play with its title. The people of the Netherlands are called the Dutch, and the country as a whole was deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 17th century, the Dutch traded more slaves than any other European country. This is primarily due to the Dutch East India Company, which controlled trade with Asia. Because the company had a monopoly in trade with Asia, it became incredibly powerful and possessed quasi-governmental powers, with a military, agricultural system, and internal government. Under these conditions, the Dutch East India Company was able to buy, sell, and move thousands of slaves across the Atlantic.

    Dutchman may also be referring to the Flying Dutchman, a myth that emerged sometime in the late 18th century about a legendary ghost ship. According to legend, the Flying Dutchman can never dock but must sail aimlessly for eternity.

    Like The Flying Dutchman, the train car continues its route, circling over and over in a never-ending repetition of movement. The constant cycle of the subway represents how the course of history is doomed to repeat itself, especially in the continuation of racism and oppression in the United States.

    The foundation of American society was largely built on slavery and oppression. In its current condition, the country cannot escape the backdrop of oppression. Racism perpetuates itself; there will always be people like Lula that benefit from oppression and uphold the status quo. Without drastic action, the cycle will never be broken, and the soul of the country can never find rest.

    Dutchman, Flying Dutchman painting, StudySmarterFig. 5 - The title may symbolize the legendary ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman.

    Dutchman Analysis

    In addition to the title, the characters in Dutchman are also highly symbolic. As mentioned briefly above, Clay's name is symbolic of how easily malleable Black lives can be in the hands of racist white society. Clay is educated, successful, level-headed, patient, and kind. He has everything he needs to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. And yet, his is cut short by a white woman who acts out of prejudice and hatred.

    The play posits that no matter how strong, determined, or educated a Black person is, their lives can still be ruined and manipulated by white society's laws and racism.

    Dutchman, Potter molding clay, StudySmarterFig. 6 - "Clay" refers to how Black lives have been and continue to be molded by white society.

    The three-piece suit Clay wears is symbolic of capitalism, class, and success. If a white person was wearing it, the suit would be a symbol of respectability and ambition. Instead, Lula mocks Clay for wearing it. She says he is a fake, trying to play the role of a successful white man when he can never achieve equal success. The suit therefore represents how a Black man like Clay will never be able to achieve true success in a capitalistic society that thrives off oppression and division.

    Lula, for her part, is symbolic of the dominant white society. She largely controls the plot of the play and manipulates Clay into doing what she wants. When she tells him to invite her to the party, he complies. When she tells him she wants to have sex, he is willing. And when she tells him to dance with her and he refuses, she kills him.

    Lula is dressed in "bright, skimpy summer clothes and sandals" with "long red hair hanging straight down her back, wearing only loud lipstick" (scene i). Her flashy, alluring appearance represents the grandeur of white society. The desirable exterior is a facade that hides the danger within.

    Dutchman, Red haired woman putting on lipstick, StudySmarterFig. 7 - The red of Lula's hair and bright lipstick represents both desire and danger.

    Although Clay could physically overpower Lula, it is Lula who holds all the power in their racially-unequal society. The apple she eats and seductively offers Clay symbolizes the biblical Eve in the Garden of Eden. After Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit, mankind was banished from paradise and subjected to sin and death. Likewise, Lula functions as a symbol of danger to Clay, and it is she who causes his downfall and devastation.

    Did you know the Bible never explicitly states Eve ate an apple? It was only referred to as "the forbidden fruit" in the holy text, but apples have become synonymous with Eve due to their depiction in pop culture (including Dutchman).

    The other passengers on the boat are symbolic bystanders. They do not think for themselves or perform any independent action in the play. Instead, they stay in the background and say nothing. Their very presence gives Lula more power as they uphold the status quo through their unwillingness to speak out against Lula's racism. Black and white passengers alike would rather do as Lula (white society) says than be punished themselves for not conforming.

    Finally, the old Black conductor and young Black man are symbols of the limited options Black people are given in white society: conformity or victimization. After Clay's murder, the Black conductor walks through the train car, tips his hat at Lula, and then continues on his rounds. He represents those who chose to conform to white society instead of rebelling against racism. He is safe from violence and murder, but he is trapped in his position and complicit in her crimes.

    On the other hand, the young Black man who gets on the train at the end of the play is likely Lula's next victim. Like Clay, he carries books and is full of ideas. He is an educated, free-thinking Black man, which makes him a threat to the status quo and dominant society. Lula smiles at him, marking him as her next victim.

    Dutchman Themes

    The main themes in Dutchman are racial oppression and Black identity.

    Racial Oppression

    Clay's society, modeled off 20th-century American society, is rife with racial oppression. Although Clay does nothing wrong and does not provoke Lula in any way, she still persecutes him because of his race, and the other passengers do nothing to stop her racist remarks or even murder. When Lula's harassment about his race becomes too much for Clay to handle, he reveals the hatred Black people feel against white society for centuries of racial oppression:

    A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurotics would be your murder." (scene ii)

    After years of racial violence—first with slavery and then with discriminatory laws and social oppression—Clay reveals how exhausting and infuriating it is to be a Black man. Clay argues the only way to end racism and bigotry is to eliminate racists and people who benefit from systemic racism.

    Black Identity

    The play also touches on the nuances and difficulties of Black identity. No matter what Clay can accomplish or what he overcomes in his life, his skin color will always be the only thing white people use to define him. Lula implies his identity as a scholar and the clothes he wears are all just ways he attempts to make himself seem better than he is. She says,

    What've you got that jacket and tie on in all this heat for? And why're you wearing a jacket and tie like that? Did your people ever burn witches or start revolutions over the price of tea? Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by. A three-button suit. What right do you have to be wearing a three-button suit and striped tie? Your grandfather was a slave, he didn't go to Harvard." (Scene i)

    To Lula (and thus all of white society), Clay's identity as an individual is impossible to discern from his identity as a Black man. Instead of being celebrated as a successful Black man, he is labeled as a wanna-be middle-class white. In an oppressive white society, Clay's skin color is his only defining factor. As long as he is Black, white society will never see him as anything more.

    Dutchman - Key takeaways

    • The one-act play Dutchman was written by Amiri Baraka and first produced in 1964.
    • Dutchman is set on a subway in New York City.
    • The main characters are Clay, a young Black man, and Lula, a beautiful white woman.
    • The drama is highly symbolic, from its name (an allusion to the slave trade) to its characters (symbolic of Black and white society).
    • The main themes are racial oppression and Black identity.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Dutchman

    What is the significance of the title Dutchman?

    Dutchman refers to Dutch ships which were used to ferry slaves from Africa to the United States and Europe. It also may be referring to the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship that is never able to dock.

    What is the Dutchman play about?

    Dutchman is about how white society damages and silences Black individuals. 

    What does the apple in Dutchman represent?

    The apple is a symbol for Eve, who brought upon man's downfall. Likewise, Lula and white society have destroyed Black lives and culture. 

    Who are the characters in Dutchman?

    The main characters are Clay and Lula. 

    How was the Dutchman story analyzed?

    Dutchman can be analyzed for symbolism in the title, characters, and objects. 

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