It is a hot summer day and the subway is zooming underground. A man sits in a seat holding a magazine but looks vacantly out the window.
The sound of the train screaming is unnerving.
The train pulls to a stop and the man idly looks up. A woman’s face meets his and she smiles purposefully. A bit embarrassed, the man looks away.
The train moves on.
Lula enters. She is white, slender, and beautiful, dressed in skimpy clothing and daintily eating an apple. She carries a bag full of things. She stops, takes the strap near Clay, and waits for him to notice her before she sits.
She says hello and he replies hello. She sits and begins rummaging through her bag. Suddenly, she asks if he was staring at her through the window, and he stiffens. He says he does not know what she means and she replies that he must know the meaning of the word. He says he just saw her but wasn’t staring, and she wryly replies that he must have had nothing else to do than run his eyes over people’s flesh.
He admits to looking but insists that she is exaggerating. Lula shrugs that she looked at him to give him more to go off of and that she came into the car specifically for him, even though she isn’t going this way.
Clay responds that that seems funny, and when she scoffs that he isn’t good at conversation, he says that he wasn’t ready for party talk. She asks what he is prepared for, and, interpreting this as flirting, he replies “anything.”
Lula laughs and asks if he thinks he is going to pick her up, take her somewhere, and screw her. Clay ponders whether that is what he looks like, and she replies that it looks like he’s trying to grow a beard, that he lives in New Jersey with his parents, and that he’s been reading Chinese poetry.
Clay is a bit disconcerted and asks if that’s true. She smiles that it’s not all true and that she lies a lot because it helps her control the world. He laughs awkwardly but admits that most of what she said is true. He inquires if she knows Warren Enright. She merely states that Clay tried to “make it” with his sister when he was ten but she just accomplished that last week.
Clay is confused again and asks if she is a friend of Georgia’s. She replies that she isn’t: remember, she lies. She then wonders if Warren Enright is “a tall skinny black boy with a phony English accent” (10); when Clay asks how she knows that, she again shrugs that she doesn’t—she just assumes Clay would have a friend like that. She even assumes Clay’s on his way there now, and he confirms that he is.
Lula moves closer, puts her hand on his knee, and then moves it up. She sighs that he is dull and probably thinks she’s exciting. He replies that she’s okay.
She reaches into her bag and offers Clay an apple, which he accepts. She muses that eating apples together is the first step, then walking around Seventh Avenue. In a singsong voice, she asks if he’d like to get involved with her.
Clay tries to be cooler and says he’d be a fool not to since she is such a beautiful woman. Lula suddenly grasps his wrist and says she bets he thinks he knows what he’s talking about and is sure about everything. She holds his wrist harder. He is surprised by her strength.
After a second, he asks how she knows so much about him. She only knows his type, she explains. She settles back in her seat, finishes her apple, and sings an R&B song.
Clay presses her, asking how she knows him and his skinny friend “without knowing us specifically” (12). She looks at him and compliments his handsome face. She then looks off into space and muses that her hair is going gray—a “gray hair for each year and type I’ve come through” (13). Clay doesn’t know why she wants to sound old; her attention drifts, and she says “it’s always gentle when it starts” (13).
Lula then turns to him, focused again, and asks if he can take her to that party. He says she must be a friend of Warren’s to know about the party. She responds by clinging to him and asking him to take her. He agrees and says she must be a friend of Warren’s.
Lula asks if he has officially asked her and he says he does not even know her name. She offers “Lena the Hyena”; he calls her a poetess and asks what his name is. She calls him “Morris the Hyena” and asks if he wants another apple. He demurs.
She continues to guess names—boring “hopeless colored names” (15)—and he tells her he is Clay. She admits that she is Lula; she begs him to ask her again to the party and say her name, which he does.
Lula gently teases him, asking what he’s into and what he’s thinking about. She grabs his thigh and he tells her she’s going to excite him for real. She then slumps back, ignores him, and pulls out a book.
He asks if she’s going to the party with him and she says, bored, that she doesn’t know him. He reminds her that she said she knew his type and she tells him not to get smart with him; she knows him like the palm of her hand.
Upon hearing this, Clay asks if she means the hand that she eats apples with. Yes, she replies, and the hand that opens her apartment door, five flights up—and the hand that she unbuttons her dress with. He wonders if she is angry about something or if he said something wrong; she smiles that everything he says is wrong. His jacket and tie in this heat are wrong; his ancestors weren’t the ones who burnt witches or started revolutions, and these clothes should make him feel oppressed. His grandfather was a slave; he didn’t go to Harvard.
A little awkwardly, Clay says his grandfather was actually a night watchman. Lula asks who he thinks he is, and he says he once thought he was Baudelaire, but not anymore. In a serious tone, Lula says he probably didn’t think he was “a black nigger” (19), then cracks up. He is a little nonplussed and tries to laugh along.
Lula continues to mock him as a “black Baudelaire” and says that everything he says isn’t wrong: it’s actually perfect. He says she’s like an actress, she says she is; he says this makes sense, and then she says that she was lying.
She makes a comment about her mother, a communist, and mocks Clay’s comments about his father being a Republican. She teases about his father and mother coming together to create Clay, and cynically calls him “My Christ. My Christ” (20). She calls for people to accept him “a ghost of the future” and to love him “that he might not kill them when you can” (21). This strikes Clay as odd, but she states matter-of-factly that he is a murderer and knows it; he ought to play along and pretend he doesn’t know it, but he does.
She declares that they will both pretend they are free of their histories and simply be “be anonymous beauties smashing along through the city’s entrails” (21). She shouts “Groove!” into the empty train.
Dutchman is Jones’s best-known play, memorable for its shocking, incisive, and brutally honest depiction of race relations in the mid-20th century. Jones sets the ominous tone right away as he explains that we are in the subway, a place “heaped in modern myth.” It is a dark, labyrinthine underbelly out of view of the rest of society—a place that is constantly moving, constantly emptying and filling with people. Critic Hugh Nelson notes its “almost automatic associations with the mysterious depths of body, mind, and society: with the physiological world of digestive and excretory processes, with the psychological world of suppressed wishes always threatening to erupt.”
Lula seems innocuous at first as she flirtatiously smiles at Clay and then sits next to him in the empty car, but she catches Clay off-guard immediately as she begins to push him on staring at her, “[running] his mind over people’s flesh” (7). Her bluntness makes the reader/audience also realize that she is not a simplistic, beautiful woman and that this is not going to be a straightforward encounter.
As Lula begins to dominate the conversation, Jones demonstrates his intent to engage with the female seductress/betrayer/destroyer/bitch archetype so universally present in Western civilization. He puts her in the company of Eve (the apples are key symbols in this regard), Delilah, Circe, and Ishtar. However, Jones doesn’t just leave her there; rather, he also has her exemplify the dangers present in American history’s “pure white womanhood” myth cultivated by Southerners to displace their guilt over slavery. This immensely powerful myth enforced white men’s power, destroyed black men, and falsely empowered and enslaved white women. Critic Phyllis R. Klotman explains, “just as it became necessary for the white man to project the image of the Negro as a savage rapist to soothe his guilt, it was equally imperative that the white woman accept this image as a means of proving to herself that she was sexually attractive.” Lula is a “deliberate seducer-destroyer,” destabilizing, arousing, and attacking Clay through alternating “between erotic incantations on the one hand and accusations and insults on the other.” She, “just like the society she represents, invents identities for the black man and insists on shaping them to the mold, whether it be Buttoned-down Negro, Black Buck, or Woolly-Headed Tom.” He cannot simply be a man, however, and Clay’s refusal to sacrifice himself to Lula means his death.
Clay’s death will have a ritual element to it, and Lula’s calling him “My Christ” at the end of Scene 1 affirms that. Christ is the “New Adam,” a Messiah who dies to redeem the human race. Clay will have to be, Linda Zatlin explains, “sacrificed, made a scapegoat like Christ, for threatening Lula’s sense of wellbeing, her white superiority.” Lula’s murder of Clay ends up doing nothing for her, however: the ritual fails. and she is neither rejuvenated nor cleansed because her racism precludes this. She will have to seek out new victims and she will never feel satiated. As for Clay, George R. Adams explains, “on the literal level of the play Clay will not really be resurrected; but he is symbolically reborn in the young Black man who enters the subway car at the end of the plat and who will have to undergo the same bloody ritual as Clay did. Clearly, given the ‘demonic’ inversion of Christian motifs in the play, the kind of Black Messiah which Clay is to become will have to be in accord with the perverted values of the society which Lula represents.”