Never has “getting a bite of the apple” proved to be as dangerous as it is in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (his last play written under the name LeRoi Jones), where a flirtation between a black man, Clay (Dulé Hill), and a curvaceous blonde, Lula (Jennifer Mudge), takes on monumental proportions. The play uses this encounter to examine the effect that America has, and has had, on African Americans. It all begins when Clay notices Lula on a subway platform and she smiles. Slinking into the car, munching coyly on an apple, Lula (a metaphor for America and its promises) flirts with him teasingly and seductively. Although he resists initially, her allure is unstoppable and eventually he succumbs. When he does, she turns on him, cruelly and savagely belittling him.
Throughout, Mudge’s mercurial Lula evokes laughter and shudders, often simultaneously. Hill, whose cautious smile exudes endearing warmth, powerfully transforms from quiet innocent to the epitome of demoralized rage. Ironically punctuating their encounter are two appearances by the conductor (Paul Benjamin), who dances a stylized shuffle step reminiscent of work by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson: an ominous specter of the legacy with which Clay lives. Dutchman has aged gracefully since its premiere (also at the Cherry Lane) in 1964. Directed tautly by Bill Duke, the play remains a powerful drama that can make audiences gasp and hold their breath.