When Amiri Baraka's best-known play, "Dutchman," opened in 1964, it was critically acclaimed and quite controversial. At the height of the civil rights movement, while black Americans were struggling for the right to vote and attend the same schools as white Americans, here was a play depicting a sexually aggressive white woman attempting to seduce and ruin a black man.
With lynching and other forms of race-related violence in America often inspired by an obsessive fear of black men exploiting white women sexually, it was as though "Dutchman" tossed a grenade right at the very ideology that has long fueled American racism.
In honor of the play's 50th anniversary, the National Black Theatre and Classical Theatre of Harlem co-produced a revival that opened last week. Its star, TV veteran Sharif Atkins, talked to The Root about the play's significance and why the subject of a black man and white woman sexually entangled is still a turbulent topic.
"I've been an admirer of Amiri Baraka and his creative expression for some time, especially 'Dutchman,'" said Atkins, which "as you have seen and probably read is extremely provocative, very deep and multilayered."
Best known for his work on TV shows like "White Collar," Atkins went on to explain that theater presents unique opportunities for performers of color. When I asked if he was referring to the tendency of theatrical roles to allow for "nontraditional" casting opportunities, he politely but firmly replied, "What does that even mean? It's an automatic marginalization of an ethnicity that is not Caucasian, the majority."
"We have to change the way we see things or even talk about things," he stressed instead.
Asked if he was surprised that a play like "Dutchman" remains provocative 50 years after its debut, Atkins said that just as Shakespeare is relevant today, so is Baraka's seminal work. He did express surprise that we're still culturally hung up in some ways. When specifically asked if he found it surprising that some black male celebrities continue to face criticism for relationships with women of different races, Atkins shared that the issue is a personal one for him.
"I can't speak to the anger or the venom that is often spewed toward men of color that date out of their race. I just recently proposed to a woman who is Puerto Rican and Irish," he disclosed. "We've been dating 3 1/2 years. I got to know her as a person. I have realized she's the one I want to ride this thing out with. Now am I going to get any measure of heat from that? I don't know. I'm happy. I'm in love. I would hope there'd be nothing but love thrown my way, but I read magazines. I read the Internet."
He shared his theories regarding why some black women react strongly to black men who have, like he has, chosen partners of a different race.
"I think it has something to do with – something unique to America – the idea that the ideal of beauty has been in the past – even with Lupita on the cover of People magazine – has been the white woman," Atkins said, adding, "My momma's a good-looking woman. My sister's a beautiful woman. My aunts are beautiful women. My grandmother, God rest her soul, was a beautiful woman. My grandmother on my dad's side, beautiful woman, still with us."
He said he understands why some black women would wonder, "'Why can't our men date a black woman?'" But he said, "I don't have a response to that because I'm a black man that's 39 years old that's dated black women, dated Asian women. But at 39, I've made a decision to hitch myself to a woman that feeds my soul and feeds my spirit."
"In 1964 this play shocked the hell out of everybody," he said. "The value of this play does not diminish just because this shock sensibility has worn off a bit. There's a whole lot that's happened in the last 50 years. But I believe it retains its power because we are still dealing with a lot of issues this play brings up."
(Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)