Senior Joel Willison was nervous to premier “The Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka, due to the controversial language and content. The play deals with blackness and discrimination in a way Willison thought the campus needed to see.
The play, written in 1963, is about a white woman named Lula, played by sophomore Katherine Asteriadou, and a black man named Clay, played by junior Jelani Givens II, interacting on a train. Clay first spots Lula outside the train station and is enamored by her witty charm and sultry banter. Her flirtation begins lighthearted, but takes a dark turn once she starts to stereotype Clay.
During the play, Lulu asks why Clay wears a suit when his grandfather must have been a mere slave. Emotions run high as Lula becomes more unhinged and shouts racial slurs, even calling Clay the n-word a couple times. Clay has enough and launches into an impassioned speech about the ways in which white Americans attempt to emasculate and vilify black men.
“The n-word is kept in the play because the language is a part of our past, [and] it is sadly a part of our present. It may continue to be a part of our future. As a production we don’t condone such language, but we’re merely trying to draw attention to it,” Willison said.
Willison sent out a director’s note to Knox students stating that picking this play was not an easy decision because of the hateful and derogatory language used throughout the length of the play.
“[I wanted to] tell the community before they came and saw this play that — heads up — not everyone’s going to be happy with this,” Willison said.
At the talk-back after the final showing, Givens was asked how it felt to be called such language for a whole term, just to put on a show.
“It was hard for me, at the end of each rehearsal knowing that I had these slurs [being] thrown at me — it was a hard pill to swallow. I know [Asteriadou], and I know that she’s not that type of person to [say the n-word] outside of this play,” Givens said.
Once Clay has finally decided that he has had enough of the injustices happening and decides to exit the train, Lula attacks him with a knife and kills him. Lula, along with the rest of the white passengers, leave Clay on the train and ignore him as they exit at the next stop, stepping over him, emotionless.
This was a conscious decision made by the crew, as it is not the original ending that Baraka had wrote in the 60s. Originally, Clay was supposed to be taken off of the train by the passengers. However, the ending has been changed by different productions in the past. Willison said another production of the play had everyone on the train beat Clay to death to make a statement about police brutality. Willison and his crew saw an opportunity to make a statement on what is happening in society today.
“We leave the body on because, nowadays, especially this year, we feel like so many bad things are happening in this world — politically, socially — and we’re not really doing anything. We are just sitting there taking the blows, and we wanted to make a statement on that and say look at what we’re doing, look at what we’re not doing,” Willison said.
The only way Givens was able to get through the emotionally taxing rehearsals was by thinking of the larger impact the play could have for the audience. It was important to him that the play’s message was received by the Knox community.
“There was a level of trust Ñ this entire play was all about trust, but it was a hard pill to swallow … but I know that I said that I wanted to make that impact,” Givens said.
The crew of “The Dutchman” knew the show they put on was not ideologically perfect, as it does focus on some stereotypes of the African American community, such as the stereotype of black men being angry and destructive. The play also negatively comments on other minority groups, like the LGBTQ+ and the Jewish community. However, Willison and the crew felt it was important to shed light on how “Dutchman” relates to society today