Mid-Century African American Theatre/Cinema and Today

Mid-Century African American Theatre/Cinema and Today

Over the last two weeks we have been spending our time discussing “African American Theatre” the artists who have made substantial impacts to the genre and the to the culture at large and how we view these values, issues, histories, and social conflicts today as we reflect on the past. We have been doing this with the vehicle of the Theatre, the compelling stories and dynamic characters of our recent Black American History that have sprung from the roots, remembering’s and re-telling’s of what actually happened in our past and how we as a society wrestled with it then and today.

Last week you watched Fences and this week you watched Dutchman. Again we are looking at two playwrights who are challenging our view of the past and how the struggle for certain races to succeed and to rise in a white dominated world view are hampered and faltered not only by modern society, the social norms and decorum or code of conduct of the day, but also by the personal struggle and need for self identity in the face of a very rooted value system that had been lived in and ascribed to since reconstruction.

Now that you have done the reading and are able to reflect over the past two weeks, I would like you to wrestle with this quote from Notes on Dutchman.

“Baraka challenges the black community to produce art that portrays the human condition, and provides The Dutchman as a paradigm”………”It must be produced from the legitimate emotional resources of the soul in the world. It can never be produced by evading these resources”

What is the human condition that Baraka speaks to? How is the SYMBOL of the Dutchman (The name of an Infamous slave-ship in the 1700’s) and the train that the play takes place in, provide a “PARADIGM” for more effective storytelling? How do we understand the human condition (as Baraka sees it) in a better way? What are “legitimate emotional resources of the soul”? What does Baraka mean when he says this? Do you agree with his stance? Why or why not?

Now, as we look at this topic through the lens of our present day and 2017, how do you feel we are doing as a society in providing entertainment and the telling of stories (Theatre, film, T.V.) about civil rights generally, black history, and how we have progresses as a society since the first time that Dutchman or A Raisin in the Sun first made an impact on the American public and body-politic? How do we see recent movements like “Black Lives Matter” in the larger scope and context of this on-going historical conversation?

Start a thread and in subject put (your full name) –

Minimum 150 words – Use complete sentences and correct grammar.

Part 2: Your Comments: Read and respond to two other students’ answers. Make sure you are specific and identify who and what you are responding to.

Remember, your answer needs to be at least 150 words total and use proper English grammar and syntax, and you must reply to at least two other students’ posts.




first student answer: Saleh

The human condition that Baraka speaks to is one in which race and racism are unavoidable and inevitable parts of the human experience, specifically for minorities. The symbol of the Dutchman and the train is such a poignant paradigm in this play/narrative because just as the slave ships of centuries ago propelled the slaves along to their deaths, or at very least their undesirable future in slavery, without a chance for them to escape, so, too, did the train propel Clay, surrounded by White people that determined his fate, towards his own untimely death. All of the symbolism in the play helps to create a deep and rich story to follow, which also helps viewers/readers see the profound struggle of the African American people in a society dominated by Anglo individuals in power. The fact that crazy Lula can kill Clay and then the rest of the passengers just silently help her toss his body off of the moving train shows how “normal” the persecution (physical, emotional, mental) of minorities is in society. It also helps to show why racism is such a hard thing to fight against, as the dominant population effortlessly denies its very existence by “hiding” the evidence and acting as if everything is normal. All of this helps to understand the human condition in a much more poignant, profound, and sad way.

When Baraka says that The Dutchman needs to be produced from the legitimate emotional resources of the soul, I believe that he means that the experiences that people (specifically minority individuals have) need to be drawn upon to truly embody the character of Clay in this play. Minority actors need to call upon each of their emotional responses to horrifying racist encounters from their past to become Clay in this narrative, as without this deep seeded knowledge there is no way to honestly and truly portray him. I completely agree with him, and this is why I took the position I did in the discussion for last week in which I insisted that color blind casting will lack depth because its characters will lack legitimate emotional resources. For example, an Anglo man could not properly reach down and pull out any legitimate emotional resources to help him act out the part of Clay, as he would never have known the withering stare or treatment of someone who judged him inferior based on the color of his skin.

In modern day American society, I think that things are much more open in the telling of the minority experience, but it still seems like specialized theater. In other words, it is like cultural tourism rather than a harsh expose that leads to social change. There are a few movies and shows that might highlight the negative experience that minorities live through on a daily basis, but for the most part they remain the “token” actors in stereotypical roles. This makes it necessary for campaigns like “Black Lives Matter” to be so loud and demanding because there is no other way that their voice gets heard. They have tried things politely and politically for decades without it getting them anywhere, and so it is about time that greater pressure was placed upon society so that it rids itself of the systemic racism that keeps so many people at a disadvantage. It is sad to see that this group still has to assert that their lives matter, rather than it just being a given, but hopefully with their brave demands and stances in current society they will be able to reach into a better future of equality, respect, and better treatment.

second student answer: Jessica


he human condition that Baraka speaks to is the seemingly unfailing way that society favors white individuals and assigns lower positions to individuals of color, not allowing them to move up and punishing them if they try. Baraka shows this through creating only one setting throughout the entirety of the production: a train car that we can assume represents the slave ship called “The Dutchman.” As more people get on the train and join Lula and Clay, no one gets off until Clay is killed and carried off by four white men. This represents the other side of society: the people who watch this process of systematic oppression, regardless of what race they identify as, and allow it to happen passively and silently. It all happens within the larger metaphor of the endlessly moving train that runs faster as Lula gets “crazier.”

This provides a paradigm because the train is a very general symbol: it moves and it carries people, but what happens within the train is what stands out. The symbol of the train allows us to understand that the progression of society can move at different speeds and even come to a full stop, and people just go along with it. This can apply to many different issues: women’s rights, LGBTQA+ rights, immigration laws, etc., which all fall under the umbrella of people allowing themselves to silently get swept up in a socially dominant group’s actions because it is easier to just be “a fool,” as Clay yells at Lula in the production.

Watching this production made it clearer that Baraka understands the human condition as if it were a cycle: a marginalized group of people attempts to assimilate into a white-dominated society, and while doing so, they have to suppress parts of themselves that do not fit in with the more dominant group’s. But as they show bits and pieces of themselves, the dominant group starts to see their traits as “Other” and picks on these parts, exploiting them and molding them into their own culture, draining it from the marginalized group. This continues to happen until the marginalized group is run dry. If the marginalized group attempts to stand up for themselves, they are ostracized, or in some more severe cases, they are literally killed. The hardest part about viewing “The Dutchman” was knowing that this situation has actually occurred many times, and Baraka’s cycle is completely valid and existing within our society. That being said, I answer the question “do you agree?” with yes. We are stuck in a cultural cycle and it has become so normalized that we don’t even realize it on a daily basis.

When viewing this film in 2017, I can easily point out the issues that arise between Lula and Clay, but it is extremely frightening to realize that it is easy because the issues are so relevant. One could say that the entertainment industry in 2017 is becoming increasingly representative of issues relating to marginalized groups of people, especially because of the spread of information regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the cases that we all see that caused the rise of Black Lives Matter are much too similar to Clay’s situation: a young African American man who is well educated tries to stand up for himself and is literally shot down due to the ongoing stereotypes that surround people of color in America, perpetuated by the way people of color are targeted by law enforcement. So, to answer the question, with the knowledge of recent events in our country, watching this production upheld the notion that we have come a long way in recognizing and promoting race issues, as well as with representation in the media, but we still have miles to go in terms of attempting to fall out of this cycle of forcing marginalized groups to assimilate into “greater” society and then condemning them when they attempt to stand up against oppression and stereotyping.