The Charles W. Eisemann Center for Performing Arts is presenting two one-act plays with social commentary on the very timely topic of race relations. Director Rockne Ragsdale wrote the first play, Guilty or Not Here I Come, in 1979 when he was just 22 years old. This is the first time it is being performed. Dutchman was written by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, and was first performed Off Broadway in New York City back in 1964.
In addition to writing drama, Baraka was a poet affiliated with the Beat Generation, Black Mountain and New York School poets. He also wrote fiction, essays and music criticism, typically about jazz. For Baraka, art was a call to action, specifically political justice in response to racial injustice.
Ragsdale met Baraka years ago in Harlem and remembers talking to him about Dutchman. He also cast his son, Darwin Ragsdale, in the play. “I interpret it as a passage play,” says Ragsdale, who notes that Baraka shared the same opinion. The central character, a conservative African American adolescent, is passing from adolescence to manhood. “I believe Baraka’s thought was that as long as we as a society maintain the Black Man as a passive or placid piece of that society he can survive,” says Ragsdale. “But when he becomes an aggressive, talkative member he must be dispatched.”
Guilty or Not Here I Come is a very personal play from Ragsdale about “loss of dignity and respect” due to misconceptions and misunderstandings. “We will never become a unified society if we cannot interact,” says Ragsdale. Drawing from personal experience, the play offers social commentary on the relationships between police officers and Black Americans.
“I was stopped by a police officer,” says Ragsdale. “I had just finished Boston University College of Fine Arts. I considered myself a well-rounded, wholesome American boy.” Ragsdale ran a red light, but the officer ordered him out of the car. When he refused, the officer pulled him out of the car and literally threw him in the gutter on a rainy night, forcing him to stay there for 30 minutes until backup arrived. Not only was his dignity stripped away, but he lost his job and his apartment, although no charges were ever filed. This is the basis for Guilty or Not Here I Come, the misconception that Ragsdale was a thuggish kid.
Ragsdale says his goal is to create questions and start a dialogue. He stresses that this is an even-handed show and would love to have police officers in attendance to get thoughts from both sides. “This is not an officer bashing experience,” he says. “We should try to culturally blend.” Instead of yelling in the street, he proposes this discussion in the safe environment of a theater.
But Guilty Or Not Here I Come is a puzzling play. It’s difficult to say what sort of social commentary is being offered here or even how Ragsdale’s personal experiences served as inspiration. The protagonist, P.T., gets a piece of jewelry from someone on a street corner. Then Officer Cooper appears and starts questioning him about the exchange and what he is doing out so late at night. P.T. is not particularly cooperative and is told to put his hands behind his back. At this point, it seems like he may be getting arrested, or at least detained, without a particular charge.
This may not be right, but P.T.’s response is very wrong and it quickly escalates the situation. He attacks the police officer, takes his gun, even fires at another officer who shows up at the scene. He handcuffs the officer to something — perhaps a bike rack? The stage props were, shall I say, abstract. In this hostage situation, he repeatedly points the gun at the officer, even chokes him, stopping just short of killing him. But yet the officer is somehow the one in the wrong here for starting all this.
P.T. is not a fully developed, likeable character. He certainly fails to make any rational case for his actions or earn any sympathy. Actor Claude Swain’s physical appearance doesn’t denote any obvious ethnicity. I would believe he was white or black or several other things, so it’s hard to believe the officer stopped him based on his skin color. More than anything, P.T. just seems like a dangerous idiot. His argument is that the cop started it and he sure hates being called “son” or “boy.”
The other protagonist, Officer Cooper, is extremely one-dimensional. He should just wear a shirt that says “Bad Guy” on the front and “Racist Cop” on the back. Putting a guy in handcuffs without a clear charge may not be right, but he didn’t even get a chance to give a Miranda warning or state a charge before being attacked. After being choked nearly to death, the notion that he is dirty for biting P.T. seems ridiculous. It also seems ridiculous that P.T. thinks Officer Cooper is exaggerating when he gets on the phone with another officer and says his life is in danger. When the story reaches it’s inevitable conclusion, it’s hard to believe that Officer Cooper has realized he was in the wrong. It just doesn’t make sense.
Dutchman is noticeably better almost immediately. It starts with a classical guitar player on the left side of the stage. On the right side of the stage, a jazz drummer joins him. The two takes turns, facing off, until they find common ground and start playing together. It’s a great intro. The acting is stronger in this play. Darwin Ragsdale, son of the director, is especially good as Clay, a conservative African American.
The entire play takes place on a subway. The stage design isn’t exactly breathtaking, but it’s better. An obnoxious white lady named Lula shows up and immediately starts shamelessly flirting with Clay while insulting him with racial slurs and stereotypes. Lula has plenty of apples to echo the Adam and Eve story and certainly gets Clay to take a bite of that forbidden fruit.
Once Clay has heard enough, he becomes indignant enough to step out of his safe and perhaps adolescent role in society and goes into a lengthy diatribe. But he must be quickly dispatched. Dutchman is a strong play with great dialogue and a few genuine flashes of humor. It certainly must have shocked audiences back in 1964. But now it seems dated and frankly a little strange. Interracial couples aren’t exactly shocking these days and Lulu just comes across as an obnoxious, awful person. The dire consequences for Clay’s attempt at asserting his manhood seem a bit ridiculous in this day and age. But the idea that a young African American is forced to hide his true self and play a safe role in society still resonates.
Dutchman and Guilty or Not Here I Come continues at 8 P.M., Friday, June 26 and runs through June 28, at the Charles W. Eisemann Center (Bank of America Theater), 2351 Performance Drive in Richardson, $35-$65, www.EisemannCenter.com or 972-744-4650.
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