Interview With…James Barnes

The actor spoke to LLLC’s Emma Clarendon about starring in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Hi James, thanks so much for talking to me. Can you explain what we can expect from Dutchman? You can expect to be presented with a story that you’re familiar with, only to then realise that you actually haven’t experienced a story like this before. Though written in 1963, Baraka’s text is not only relevant but articulates questions that we are yet to openly acknowledge in a modern context. And perhaps, more obvious now than in the decades before, Dutchman unapologetically calls out the fact that society will not just simply progress without there being a communal ‘price’ to pay. This is something which the USA is seeing a lot of right now, with multiple mass shootings as just one example.

What was it that made you want to be part of this production? I first worked with Kaitlin when I left drama school in 2012, we were working on Aeschylus’ ‘Libation Bearers’. It was evident then that Théâtre Libre was a company interested in tackling hard human questions and making them relevant for a contemporary audience. So, when Kaitlin came to me with
Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman a few years ago, it was a no brainer. Most of all, the importance of both us collaborating in an effort to highlight the ubiquity of white supremacy was an act that I felt there
simply wasn’t enough of in the mainstream environment.

What did you first think of the play when you read it? When I first read it, I was a little shell-shocked. I felt like I had met the character of Lula on a number of occasions in my life and struggled to see her in a one-dimensional way. I recognised her emotionally, visually and spiritually and had to immediately question my own experience as a man
and a black man. Amiri Baraka’s skill at creating a character layered with biblical, racial and social meaning seemed second to none.

Could you tell me about you character? I play Clay, he’s a young man who has taken all the reasonable steps and more towards success. He’s
not your stereotypical young black man as negatively portrayed in a lot of stories, rightly or wrongly; which actually becomes the focal point for why the character of Lula seeks to tear him down. Clay is fully aware of how the world works but would rather get on with his day and not be dragged
down by negativity. But like many young black people, if given the chance, if pushed into a corner as a result of their complexion, there’s a world of truth, anger and sorrow ready to be spoken.

Given the play’s topics, what can we do to try and tackle prejudice in society? I think Amiri Baraka speaks loud and clear about the need for society to actually confront these racial, socio-political truths, and to not implement his sincerity into how we tackle prejudice would certainly be a mistake. We should all be aware by now that being polite and avoiding sensitive conversations will not move civilisation forward. Being blind and/or tolerant of what are essentially human rights abuses in the case of police brutality in the USA will only exacerbate the issue and risk explosive ramifications in the future. In the words of Frederick Douglas, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Regardless of what we adults think, we should ultimately be building a world where the young are free to make informed choices about important issues. Prejudice is certainly an issue the young could do without being taught or indoctrinated with,
because I very much doubt racial prejudice occurs naturally.

How have rehearsals been going so far? Rehearsals have been relatively painless. And by that I mean, it can always be quite heavy on the
heart and mind to explore such stories as these but as a team, our approach has been a soft one, reinforced with consideration and clarity where it’s due. We’ve been able to trust that the material speaks for itself. And now that we’re nearing our opening, it feels as though we’ve covered a lot of ground quite easily.

How would you describe Dutchman as a play?Dutchman signals the importance of a black man’s individuality, and in the greater sense, black
people; which is often ignored and or moulded into something more palatable for the rest of society, by black and white communities alike.
Amiri Baraka combines elements of poetry with a confrontational set of truths regarding race and class. Provocative in its style, we can think of it as a way to jump-start some uncomfortable

By Emma Clarendon

Dutchman plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre from the 8th to the 26th October.

How would you describe Dutchman as a play?

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