You notice immediately that there isn’t a comfortable moment — no brief respite to catch your breath and enjoy the subway ride — during the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s 57-minute performance of “Dutchman.”
The play, written in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka, takes place on a New York City subway train. It stirs lustful passion that centers on an interracial hookup — a taboo subject that was illegal in some states at that time — and smacks the audience in the face time and time again with lethal doses of racism.
At first, there’s an awkward voyeuristic element to it all — at watching two strangers meeting and sharing instant intimacy as her body undulates and her hands explore his body — that you feel like you shouldn’t be watching. And yet, as uneasy as witnessing this encounter feels, our collective carnal instincts prevent us from looking away.
It then evolves to a worse kind of discomfort, when the conversation becomes more biting and the underlying racism bubbles to the surface with violent rage. The usage of the N-word should -- and does -- cause one to recoil, as does much of the dialogue in this play.
We’d like to believe that America has changed in the 50 years since this play was written. That’s naïve poppycock. The truth is, 50 years later, the subject matter of “Dutchman,” named after a slave ship that brought blacks to America, remains relevant in these racially and culturally divided times.
And that said, it’s a play that could be a conversation starter, a first step toward a mutual understanding between differing opinions — that is, if you can endure the discomfort.
“It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable,” says Eugene H. Russell IV, a professional actor from Atlanta who is making his Nebraska Rep debut as Clay, a passenger who is minding his own business when a sexy siren named Lula sets her sights on him.
There is nothing redeeming about Lula, a broken soul played fearlessly by Emily Raine Blythe, a third-year theater performance student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.
“Obviously, she’s pretty vile,” said Blythe, a native of Austin, Texas. “There’s a lot to separating Emily from Lula. When I’m up here on the stage, I’m Lula. As soon as it’s done, I’m glad to be Emily again.”
With her flaming red hair, long legs and scanty attire, she’s looking for fun — and trouble. We know that from the first minute as she bends over to grab an apple from her bag, giving every male in the house — Clay included — an eyeful of her backside.
She then sits across from Clay, who is wearing a suit and a tie with his nose stuck in a book to that point, and seductively bites into the apple.
The significance of the apple — the forbidden fruit, literally the oldest story in the book — is blatant, especially when set in the midst of a time of segregation, violence and the assassinations of many, most notably in this case that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Eating an apple is where it starts,” says Lula, just minutes after sashaying down the center aisle of the train and forcing her way onto the same bench seat as Clay. Her attempt at seduction is successful. He plays her game as she attempts to tell him — a total stranger — with blunt brutality who he is and what he represents.
Clay allows himself to be harshly judged by Lula because, well, the promise of sex often will cause a man to put up with -- and sacrifice -- just about anything, dignity included. However, Lula crosses the line by mocking his upbringing and what she calls his oppressed plantation mentality. She calls him the N-word and refers to him in a number of other degrading ways, including an Uncle Tom.
And as she does this, the rest of the passengers, visibly uncomfortable by the earlier public displays of affection between Clay and Lula, find it easy to side with the attractive white woman and laugh mockingly. The mob mentality quickly takes over.
Clay, outraged and humiliated, makes the decision to take no more as he attempts to regain his self-respect.
“Clay at the end has reached his limit with her telling him who he is,” Russell said. “The current relevance is that America has a history of, and still continues to have, from my experience, to try to tell black people who we are instead of allowing us to determine our stories for ourselves.
“There are preconceived notions, there are media narratives and false narratives that are passed on and recycled. Often, we’re not allowed the space to breathe and define and determine ourselves. That’s probably what resonates the most for me.”
In the end, you root for him to straighten his tie, reopen his book and forget he ever met the stunning -- and albeit broken --redhead. If only life featured do-overs. That said, the ending to this train ride, while not enjoyable, has to be experienced, absorbed -- and then discussed.