Enduring Materials – Performa: Rashid Johnson’s Dutchman at Red Square Baths

September 23, 2014 | Published Articles, Writing

Originally published by Artslant in September 2014.

“And we’ll pretend that people cannot see you. That is, the citizens. And that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history. We’ll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing along through the city’s entrails [She yells as loud as she can] GROOVE!”

—  Amiri Baraka, Dutchman, 1964.

We gathered in the lobby of a recently renovated bathhouse at 1914 W Division Street in Chicago’s Wicker Park. The time was 11:00pm. Upon arrival, everyone received a large bottle of water, a bathrobe, sandals, and a locker key—though standard fare for any public bath, it isn’t typical theater attire. Yet this was the obligatory uniform for New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s audience. We gathered to see his rendition of Dutchman, the historic 1964 play by Amiri Baraka, an indisputable forefather of American literature. Commissioned by Performa for its original debut at a New York bathhouse last November, Johnson’s cast reconvened for a second time in the artist’s hometown Chicago this fall. In the lobby, Johnson explained that this particular Division Street bathhouse had personal significance. During grad school, it was a place he regularly came to decompress and reflect. His studio assistant reminded us that the higher one sat the hotter it was, and to please drink water when we felt it necessary. Down the stairs we went thereafter into the men’s portion of the establishment until our assembly arranged itself on three tiers of wooden bathhouse benches, already sweating in the deep dark of a sauna. Johnson took the stage only once in the beginning of the work, standing before the massive great oven to throw two cups of water into the dark pit it contained. Above and behind his head, a sign in all capital letters reminds bathers to add water with caution, lest it get too hot.

The actors take the stage. Clay (Kevyn States) enters first. He reads the newspaper—a current issue of the New York Times. Lula (Tori Ernst) then walks on with a purse. With her bathrobe almost closed, a red bikini peers out nonetheless. Everything in the two act play occurs between these two characters—Clay, a 20 year-old black man, and Lula, a 30 year-old white woman—as they ride the New York subway. Each actor sits on facing benches, and the rest of the audience fills out the rest of our narrow, cramped quarters. Like a vampy character out of Tennessee Williams play, Lula aggressively goads her costar to his breaking point. She knows his type, she claims. She proves it, mocking his predictability, guessing the names of his friends, and the habits of his parents; mercilessly, she chaffs against his own sense of place in mainstream America. She mocks him for wanting to be a Black Rimbaud, casting racial slurs with stunning expertise, infusing the air with a sexual charge as unpredictable as it is inescapable. Clay is mild mannered by comparison. Level-headed even. Honest. He tends to give people the benefit of the doubt. Observant of social cues. He is the middle class black man and she belittles him for it, driving the history of slavery into his heart like a stake. “Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by,” she says—and on and on relentlessly, to such an extent that when he finally responds in kind, he unearths a latent rage so confusing as to destroy any sense of self he’d previously assumed. As though to further embody the extent of Clay’s crisis, Lula knifes him to death in the final moments of the play. She plans to throw his body outside without consequence while the rest of the audience—all of us sweating unbearably where we are stacked like sardines in the cramped/dim/hot box—watch silently like indifferent commuters. read more