Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, is one of those playwrights suffering from "August Strindberg Syndrome": His work is talked about a lot, but rarely produced.
Of course, every so often a handful of grad students, drunk on absinthe, mumble, "Hey! Wouldn't it be fun to put on Miss Julie?!" So if you've ever seen Strindberg, that's probably the one you saw.
And if you've heard of Baraka, his one-act "Dutchman" is probably the one you've heard about. And I do mean "heard about" -- "Dutchman" is even less frequently produced than Miss Julie.
It was, however, quite a sensation when it opened off-Broadway in 1964. A white woman on a subway train flirts with a young, buttoned-up black man and eventually -- as we say in the theater -- bad things happen. "Dutchman" was the last play Baraka wrote as LeRoi Jones. He soon turned to Black Nationalism and eventually embraced Third World Leninism.
"Dutchman" is a play continually published in anthologies, and certainly any discussion of the origins of off-Broadway theater, the downtown art scene and/or Black Theater must at least mention it.
But after seeing this production at Kuntu Repertory Theatre, it's not too terribly difficult to understand why the play is seldom revived. A well-regarded poet, essayist and music critic Baraka may be, but he is not a very good playwright. Even in terms of theatrical poetics or polemical theater or agitprop, "Dutchman" is very clearly a man trying to say something without the stagecraft to say it. These are poorly written characters mouthing outrageously inept dialogue.
Kuntu unfortunately adds a second one-act to the mix, an even earlier play called "The Slave," and, believe me, the less I say about that, the happier everyone's going to be. It's important to note that by the end of the '60s, Baraka had left playwriting behind, focusing instead on his poetry. Would that he had done so sooner.
At Kuntu, Tyrone Johnson and Stephanie Griffith star in lead roles in both plays. The production has its own problems, not the least of which involved delaying the opening week because of the G-20 summit, and the opening performances because of cast illnesses. And, truthfully, they weren't ready to open when they did.
"Dutchman" and "The Slave" continue through Sat., Oct. 10. Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. 412-624-7298