INTERVIEW: James Barnes, ‘Dutchman’, Tristan Bates Theatre

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Let’s pretend that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history.

Dutchman‘ is Amiri Baraka’s award-winning one-act play, revolving around two characters: Lula, a white woman, and Clay, a black man. It lands right at the intersectionality of race, gender and class to present an explosive exploration of white privilege, masculinity, power and sexuality.

Tackling racial inequality this Black History Month, ‘Dutchman’ draws tense parallels between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement, asking what, if anything, has changed in the last 50 years?

Confronting race and class in modern society, ‘Dutchman’ shines a light on modern race relations, as relevant now as it was when it was first performed in New York in 1964.

Currently running at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, I spoke to actor James Barnes about this important and confrontational production.

“Both characters represent the world around them”

James explains that “‘Dutchman’ is about the coincidental meeting of Lula (a white woman) and Clay (a young black man) on the NYC subway. Clay being somewhat inexperienced in the ways of older women is ultimately Lula’s prey and Lula tries every which way from Sunday to get a rise out of him. That being a reaction which betrays Clay’s cool and sophisticated demeanor and relegates him to the stereotype of an angry black man; something of which Lula seems more comfortable with. Clay at first manages to sidestep Lula’s goading but eventually is forced to give her a piece of his mind; only the delivery is very unexpected. Metaphorically, you could say that both characters represent the world around them, the socio-political and racial constructs at play here in the western world”.

The play “navigate[s] what is essentially a minefield of conversation”

James is playing the character of Clay in the production. He tells us that “Clay is a young black man who like many young black men, does not wish to viewed entirely through their blackness. The thought of that being all there is to them is in itself debilitating. So when we meet Clay, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s proud of who is but he certainly wants to be more, he wants to succeed in all the ways possible and ultimately be seen for who he actually is and certainly not a stale stereotype”.

James told me how the production tackles racial inequality. He says that writer “Amiri Baraka has pretty much done it all for us. He lays down the thoughts and words to navigate what is essentially a minefield of conversation and a subject matter that white people, as well as blacks, are terribly uncomfortable talking about and are too ashamed to broach. Particularly, Amiri Baraka poses the question, to what extent have black people abandoned their wits, sanity and altogether logical judgement so that they find ways to exist in a white supremist world and not continually lash out. How has this happened? When did black people make the jump from sanity to insanity and choose to reside there? And how long does the world have left until black people wake up like dragons laid dormant?”

“It’s important that we tackle this through the arts”

Racial inequality is something that is being spoken about around the world, on a daily basis. James explains what racial inequality is, and why it is important that we explore it in theatre and the arts: “Racial inequality is treating people differently on the basis of race. An individual discriminating on a personal basis or entire institutions discriminating (against a specific group) directly or indirectly through the societal infrastructures that are in place. An obvious example would be Racial Profiling by a police force but the other forms of subtle institutional discrimination are very damaging in their own right.

“the arts allow an audience to live and breathe its humanity and share the experience of other people”

It’s important that we tackle this through the arts because the arts allow an audience to live and breathe its humanity and share the experience of other people and other cultures; willingly not under duress. If the only time a societal issue is brought to your attention is through a protest in the middle of the city, then you’re likely to miss the importance of that struggle on a human level. When we incorporate the world’s very many different struggles, we humanise those struggles and everyone perhaps leaves the theatre/space a little more sensitive to it”.

“these topics are all current and have been for as long as humans can remember”

‘Dutchman’ looks at the intersectionality between race, class and gender. James talks about the relationship between these three when he writes, “these topics are all current and have been for as long as humans can remember. They are intertwined and all affected by each other. If, for example, we achieved racial equality… that wouldn’t guarantee gender equality and vice versa. And achieving even both of those would certainly not triumph over the discrepancies of the class system; which will surely be the last bastion of a supremacist system that humans find themselves fighting, so enduring is the issue of class. In ‘Dutchman’, Amiri Baraka poetically dissects how intertwined these issues are and the difficulty of extracting rational thought in the midst of such confusion. A lot of people fall into one of those categories and if you are either a victim or perpetrator of those, that is likely to affect your value system and or perception of the world. And for me, that compounds the issues and miscommunication we’re consistently dealing with”.

“not much has changed”

The show also looks at the tense parallels between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement. James tells me that “not much has changed. And I’m not saying that carelessly. Yes, black people aren’t being lynched in the same numbers… but there has been multiple cases of lynching over the last decade. An organisation like Black Lives Matter has had to speak up otherwise we risk suffering under the guise of a supposedly post-racial society which is still in a lot of ways continuing the practices of the 20th century”.

“Black history [is] something that can be openly celebrated and accepted by all”

The production’s run at the Tristan Bates Theatre this October coincides with Black History Month. I asked James to tell me about the significance of this month, and how theatre, specifically this play, celebrates it. “This is a great question. The significance of this month is that it has become synonymous with black history being something that can be openly celebrated and accepted by all. That’s a positive and should be reinforced each year. Of course the real goal is to ‘normalise’ black history and make it world history because it truly is that but for now, it’s a great opportunity to share black stories.

“I take this play to be necessary”

Amiri Baraka’s ‘Dutchman’ perhaps doesn’t celebrate it in the most positive way. Perhaps if humanity reaches a Utopia, this is one such play that wouldn’t be done anymore. However, I take this play to be necessary and a huge gesture of vulnerability being gifted to the masses, white and black, in an effort for us all to shape our future. If you come away from ‘Dutchman’ thinking it’s all doom and gloom, you have perhaps missed the cry for help, the warnings of the play. Baraka doesn’t pull any punches and concretely packages the play in the cold hard truth of the time that it was written (1963), which is still relevant today but he also addresses the audience directly and urges that attention be paid to what is happening right now and therefore could happen in the future.

‘Dutchman’ celebrates black history by allowing us to take stock of where we are as a culture and truly is a labour of humanity designed to communicate not divide”.

“‘Dutchman’ celebrates black history by allowing us to take stock of where we are as a culture”

James considers how much racial equality has progressed in the last 50 years. “I would say it’s definitely progressed but some old habits die hard and have found new forms. Whilst I have no intention of being ‘grateful’ for how far society has come (as if equality should be considered a gift) it’s important to be aware of what rights and liberties we have now that didn’t exist before for black people. But as for progression, open a newspaper, read about global politics and poverty and perhaps you may feel that we haven’t progressed nearly quickly enough”.

“We need to view other people across race, cultures and different belief systems as human beings, pure and simple”

In light of this, I asked James what else needs to change? What can we do? And how can theatre help? He says, “ So much to say, how to say it… We need to view other people across race, cultures and different belief systems as human beings, pure and simple. It’s one thing to say that racially we should be a certain way but that means nothing if we maintain our views on gender inequality or we continue to perpetrate war crimes against societies that look different to us. It really is a mammoth undertaking that needs to ripple throughout our behaviour as a species. We can do our best to stand up for inequality everywhere we see it instead of being fragmented in our own little groups. If you march for Black Lives Matter, march for LGBTQ and vice versa. If you march for gender equality, march against war and the war economy, march for the environment and so on. These issues are not, though they may seem, separate. Theatre will make all of these struggles human and bring us all closer together”.

“Theatre will make all of these struggles human and bring us all closer together”

‘Dutchman’ is running at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October.

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