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Dule Hill: The Enduring Rage of Dutchman

About the author:
TV fans who think of Dule Hill as presidential aide Charlie Young on The West Wing will be in for a jolt when they experience his ferocious performance in the off-Broadway revival of Dutchman, a provocative racial drama written in 1964 by Amiri Baraka under his given name, LeRoi Jones. Sitting in a subway car minding his own business, Hill's character, Clay, is pulled into a suggestive conversation with an alluring blonde named Lula—with terrifying results. Dutchman's running time is less than an hour, but Hill and Jennifer Mudge as Lula make every tense and ultimately tragic minute count. The 31-year-old actor is no stranger to the stage: As a child, he showed off his skills as a dancer in the title role of the national tour of The Tap Dance Kid and later appeared on Broadway in Black and Blue and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Hill's work on The West Wing earned him an Emmy nomination, and he's now starring in the comedy/crime series Psych on the USA Network. asked this multitalented star to tell us how he decided to come back to the theater to tackle Baraka's still-shocking script.

Dutchman is the first play I've ever done—but in many ways I grew up in the theater. When I was 10 years old, I understudied Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid, then spent a year in the national tour, traveling with my mother and my brother and sharing the stage with Harold Nicholas. I started feeling the rumblings of really wanting to pursue acting as a career when I did Black and Blue on Broadway at age 15. By the time I spent two years in the cast of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, I was studying acting with William Esper, and people kept telling me about a play that had a good role for me: Dutchman.

Fast forward to March 2006. I'd spent seven years playing Charlie on The West Wing, but I never forgot about the stage. In fact, the entire West Wing experience was about hanging around actors who ingrained in my mind that theater is where you go to work on your craft. TV is where you get paid and take care of your family, but theater is where the real work is done. From Martin Sheen to Allison Janney to Richard Schiff to John Spencer, they all talked about the theater and I learned so much by working with them. So last spring, when I got a call from James King, the general manager of the Cherry Lane Theatre, asking me to perform a piece from Dutchman at their fund-raising gala, I said yes—before I read the play!

My first thought when I read Clay's monologue was that it was longest speech I had ever been asked to deliver as an actor. My second thought was that I couldn't believe those words were actually written and performed in 1964. I was taken aback by how bold Mr. Baraka was to write what he did, and how courageous the actors must have been to get up onstage and say them—and then walk outside the theater afterward. The play still feels very raw today, so I can only imagine the response 40 years ago. It must have been like a knife, cutting through the status quo.

The reaction at the gala was positive, and a few months later, I got a call saying that they wanted to put the play up as a full production at the Cherry Lane, the same theater it debuted in all those years ago. It's an amazing experience to go up on that stage every night with Jennifer Mudge, who plays Lula. She brings me so much to work with, and every show is different.

Clay is someone who is trying to forget his past and hide behind intellectualism in order to be accepted by the establishment. He thinks that if he wears his nice suit and talks properly, he'll be accepted. He's trying to run away from his demons and the rage that comes out of dealing with his history. As the play goes on, Lula's taunting just gets to be too much. He realizes that the cost of trying to be with this white lady is too high, and he can't hide from his past anymore.

Mr. Baraka has said that Lula is a metaphor for America, the train represents the system and the subway is what goes on underneath the surface. The play is a big, abstract metaphor, but as actors, we can't play that; we are playing the reality of these two people who are crying out for understanding. Clay's monologue rolls off the tongue:

"Let me be who I feel like being. Uncle Tom. Thomas. Whoever. It's none of your business. You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart. You don't ever know that. And I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit, to keep myself from cutting all your throats."

I like the poetry of it all, and I feel the play has something to say about issues people are still dealing with today. It's not just about race; it's about communication and dealing with hate. One of my co-stars showed me news reports of white kids at a school in Texas who had a party for Martin Luther King's birthday; the kids dressed up as gangster rappers and Aunt Jemima and ate fried chicken and drank malt liquor. That alone lets you know that the issues in Dutchman are still current.

People who know me from West Wing or my new TV show Psych and see this play may think, "What the heck!?" Clay is not Charlie or Gus. But I'm enjoying every minute of this experience. I feel that I'm growing with every show, and learning a lot about the craft of acting. And frankly, I like doing something that may make people feel uneasy. There are a lot of Clays and Lulas out there, and I think it's better to look at the rage that exists on both sides of the fence. When you try to sweep it under the rug and not deal with it, it shows its ugly face later.

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