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If You Liked This Album, Check Out This Playwright! Pt. 2

I know y’all have been very patient . . .

If you liked To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar . . .

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. . . check out Amiri Baraka!

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Did Lamar’s silver-tongued politics over live jazz make the last few years bearable? Did his poetry-packed lines help to release a battle cry within you? Did his self-critique illuminate a paradox you didn’t know had been living just beneath your chest? Then you better crack open an Amiri Baraka play tout suite!

I would see Baraka’s Dutchman script populating every bookstore’s minuscule drama section (I was a very specific brand of theatre nerd: an academic from the age of 14), but I didn’t get to reading it until sophomore year.

Lemme tell you: It hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s a one act, but packs the punch of a two and half hour evening. It’s an (almost) two-hander: Lula, a white woman, chomping upon a red apple, sets out to seduce Clay, a black intellectual on the subway car. In the same way Lamar recoils at the record industry attempting to ‘own’ him or his image in For Free?, Clay finds that Lula wants to mold him into her stereotype of a young black man who would serve her desires.

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Cherry Lane Theatre’s 2007 production of Dutchman

Baraka is a master of dramatizing how racist structures manifest in violent cycles. Without giving too much away, Dutchman’s protagonist realizes what Lamar raps in Element: “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

If you were captivated by the ruthless self-investigation of If These Walls or u, I would point you to Baraka’s The Slave. Baraka imagines a full out race war, and the sacrifices the leader of such a movement would face. It is stuffed will fascinating debate over idealism, the complacency of the white liberal, and the domestic vs. the political sphere. In both of his most famous plays, Baraka explores the difficulties within interracial relationships. Baraka’s own marriage was so strained that after Malcolm X’s assassination, he divorced his wife. He felt he was married to the enemy.

Baraka and Lamar have adopted radical politics: for Baraka, it was the Black Nationalist movement of the 70s and 80s. For Lamar, it’s Black Lives Matter. This is inherent, essential to both of their oeuvres. But what makes them both brilliant is how they pour their deeply personal, unanswerable questions into their work. Depending on the day, they are at war on two fronts: with white supremacy, and with themselves. If neutrality is complicity, they incite audiences to take a fearless moral inventory of themselves in order to take a stand for what they believe.

 

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