Reviewed by Philip Roth, 1964 (NY Review of Books)
Another play about "the races" has stirred up interest recently, a one-act play Dutchman , by the poet, LeRoi Jones. This work, currently being performed at the Cherry Lane Theater, was widely praised by the New York critics.
Unfortunately for Jones, his work leads one's memory back to another short play (one that may even have furnished Mr. Jones's imagination with a certain thrust forward into his own subject)—Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. Both plays bring into conflict two people who live in the same city, New York, but whose backgrounds are so different as to alert each to a threat or a promise in the other. In The Zoo Story, Jerry, a man in his thirties who lives in a seedy rooming house on the upper West Side, comes upon Peter, a conventional family man, who works in publishing and lives in an apartment in the East Seventies. Peter is sitting on his own favorite bench in Central Park, reading a book, when Jerry comes upon him—or settles on him. The meeting may appear at the opening of the play to be accident; by the end it is revealed to have been design. "I'll start walking around in a little while," Jerry says to Peter early in the play, "and eventually I'll sit down. Wait until you see the expression on his face," he adds, and Peter asks, "What? Whose face?" The face will be Peter's own when he finds that he has stabbed Jerry to death.
In Dutchman, an attractive young white woman. Lula, comes upon an attractive young Negro man. Clay, reading a book in a subway car, and sets out to seduce him, or so it seems. Her technique is not unlike Jerry's: she teases, she mocks, she insults: like Jerry she is lively, irascible, a little witty, and maybe a little mad. Like Jerry she tells her prey that she really knows him for what he is, and like Peter, Clay at first agrees that perhaps she does know something. Clay is on his way to a party, and after Lula cajoles him into taking her with him, they appear to agree that they will later end the night at her apartment. But when, in a burst of spirit, Lula begins an outrageous sexual dance in the middle of the subway car, Clay drags her back to her seat, and the two have it out: Lula tells him what kind of black nigger he really is, and in a rage, Clay slaps her, and tells her what she really is, what all whites are, and what it is to be a Negro who must keep himself from murdering those who deny and distort his identity. Finally, he calms down and says to her, "Sorry, baby, but I don't think we could make it." Whereupon Lula draws a switchblade knife from her purse and stabs him to death. Though the subway car had been empty when Lula came aboard, several white people are now looking on: they have witnessed Lula's dance, now they witness the stabbing. Immediately they are instructed by Lula to dump the dead man between the rushing cars and to disembark at the next stop. In their terror they comply. Lula then marks something down in a little notebook (one more victim, probably). She is prepared to leave the car, when another young Negro man boards the train. Instead of leaving, Lula settles down to begin her wooing and, one assumes, her murdering of him.
It was not to impugn Mr. Jones's originality that I began by noting a resemblance between his play and The Zoo Story; what is unfortunate about Dutchman is not that it too closely resembles The Zoo Story in its plotting, but that it does not resemble it enough where it most matters: in its understanding of what the strangers mean to each other, and of how this meaning determines what happens between them. The Zoo Story succeeds because the action begins and ends in Jerry's desire; this desire is not simple, but that it was a desire from the start is, in the end, clear. When he has impaled himself upon the knife he has tossed to Peter, and which Peter holds up to him, more in fear than fury—in that moment the why of Jerry's desire is fully...