By Robert Simonson
13 Jan 2014
Though he carved out his most considerable literary career in the world of poetry, publishing a dozen books of verse over four decades, Mr. Baraka arguably made his biggest splash as a writer in the theatre when his incendiary 1964 one-act Dutchman — which he wrote under his given name Leroi Jones — became a nationwide sensation. (Norman Mailer called it "The best play in America.")
The allegorical play, set on a subway, depicted an increasingly volatile and ultimately deadly encounter between a bookish black man, Clay, and a flirtatious, taunting white woman, Lula. Approving critics considered the play a potent evocation of the turbulent and tragic history of white-black relations in the United States, and even those who didn't like the drama admitted that it provoked conversation unlike few other stage works of the time.
Dutchman, which was staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre with Robert Hooks and Jennifer West in the lead roles, was awarded an Obie Award for Best American play and ran for nearly a year. It was made into a 1967 film starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman, Jr.
In 1963, he published one of his most significant cultural studies, "Blues People: Negro Music in White America," a volume of jazz and blues criticism which traces the history of African-Americans in America through their music.
Everett LeRoi Jones was born on Oct. 7, 1934, in Newark to Coyt Leverette Jones, a postal supervisor, and Anna Lois Russ, a social worker. In 1951, he won a scholarship to Rutgers University, but a year later he transferred to Howard University. He left Howard without graduating and later studied at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research. In 1954, he joined the Air Force, but he was dishonorably discharged when his commanding officer discovered some of his communist-leaning writings.Continued...