Kayla Stokes, a senior BFA directing student, and her creative team produced a moving production of Amiri Baraka’s famous 1964 play, Dutchman. The piece dissects the interaction between a black man and a white woman on a New York Subway car. Their conversation escalates throughout the ride, culminating in a violent end.

We sat down with Stokes to discuss how representation of race and gender are critical aspects of Dutchman.

What larger movements and broader groups does the character Lula represent?

Before the rehearsal process began, we were talking about Lena Dunham as being a caricature of the modern, white feminist. And when I say “white feminist,” I’m referring to women who ignore intersectionality and are concerned with feminist issues that only affect white women. Our conception broadened during the rehearsal process: initially we thought of this version of Lula as wearing one of those pink pussy hats, but then we felt as though our depiction should be less specific because this sort of white feminist exists in so many different ways—so we settled on her being an example of a woman who doesn’t understand that she is racist, a woman who preaches one thing and does another.

And Clay?

Despite how much Clay defies stereotypes of what a black man is, he is still treated as though he is not as good as a white man wearing exactly the same outfit. That really connected to me, being a black woman in a predominantly white institution: the idea I have to work twice as hard to get half as much is very much represented in Clay. Clay represents the necessary assimilation of survival.

At a certain point in the performance, “Apeshit” by Beyonce begins to play and Clay and Lula break out into dances in which both characters seem to be acting out stereotypes of themselves. What was the inspiration behind the particular choreography in the dance sequence?

The whole stage direction for that sequence is simply: blackout. So, the dance sequence was invented in the room. It came out of the team’s urge to explore what these two people are like physically, what it would mean for them to be together. We explored what it meant for them to perform stereotypes of themselves for each other. In Lula’s case, leaning into the stereotype of “sexy seductress” means something very different than Clay performing racial stereotypes (such as acting like an NBA player, or like a monkey) and her enjoying it. Ultimately, I think the sequence shows that it was easier for Lula to live in that space than Clay.

What can non-black people of color take away from this play?

I’ve thought a lot about how this play means wildly different things to different people… but I don’t know how to answer that question. I think that the play is saying that rage manifests in different ways. There’s such a villainization of rage in our culture. In my ideal world, the play would say to a white audience: this rage is valid and not evil.

 

Written by Pravin Wilkins