A commissioned work for Performa 13, Rashid Johnson’s production of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman at the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in New York is a terrific idea, if imperfectly executed.
Baraka’s play won the Obie in 1964 when it premiered at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater. Johnson saw it there at a 2007 revival. Dutchman depicts a blistering encounter between a nutty, lascivious white woman and a timid middle-class black man on the New York subway. The play seems at times like a plausible subway pickup, but at other moments eschews realism to give lyrical voice to racial mythology and rampant sexual desire. Baraka wrote it while still known as LeRoi Jones and married to a white woman. Revered by many, he has also been a controversial figure, assailed for being anti-Semitic and homophobic. Whatever one may think of his politics, Dutchman articulately expressed the demand for black power as the Civil Rights movement was unfolding. In Dutchman, the white woman taunts and titillates the assimilated black man until he turns on her to vent his rage.
Dutchman‘s ideas about race call out to be reinterpreted 50 years later. Johnson’s choice of the play is therefore entirely consistent with his work, which often reconfigures representations of race, and his reputation, first established when he was included as a “post-black” artist in Thelma Golden’s 2001 “Freestyle” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Now represented by international mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth, New York-based Johnson has become a powerhouse artist, working in photography, mixed-medium installation and painting, with exhibitions around the world. Dutchman is his first foray into live performance.
Taking the play out of the theater and into the bathhouse creates a promising set of social circumstances to contextualize the performance. The spectators disrobe and change into the egalitarian uniform of the bathhouse’s black robes before cramming themselves into the steam room and, for the climax of the play, the excruciating Russian sauna, sweating cheek-by-jowl with each other and the actors.
In the play and the fantastic 1966 film adaptation starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., blackouts of the subway car lights are used to transition between scenes. In Johnson’s staging, the audience follows the actors as they move from room to room.
The sizzling setting literalizes the play’s searing sexual and racial tensions and invokes the atmosphere of the un-air-conditioned subway cars of the 1960s. Unfortunately, the actors (Tori Ernst as Lula and Kevyn States as Clay) are not up to the heat. Their tepid realist performances never achieve the crazy, dangerous sexuality that sustains Dutchman, nor are they able to launch the play into the fantastical world in which Baraka’s extreme and powerful rhetoric resides. But if the show falls short of its aspirations, you can still have a good schwitz.
Performances of the sold-out show continue through Nov. 21.