January 26, 2022

"Essential Dichotomies" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on Amiri Baraka's death, poetry, and his play "The Toilet")

Essential Dichotomies

Amiri Baraka The Toilet, first presented in New York at St. Mark’s Playhouse, on December 16, 1964; reprinted from Douglas Messerli and Mac Wellman, eds., From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1998) 

On the surface, Amiri Baraka’s short play of 1964, The Toilet, appears to be nothing but a documentation of a bullying incident in a high school, with a majority of Black boys beating a frail white boy, Karolis, who has apparently written a kind of love letter to the head of the Black gang, Foots (or Ray). It might be superficially represented as a kind of abbreviated “rumble” scene out of West Side Story.

      But the authenticity of Baraka’s language and his briefly catalogued “types” at the beginning of the script, quickly—and the play is performed, surely, at nearly lightning speed—transforms this work into a drama which, quite subtly, explores a whole series of dialectical issues: masculinity and its inverse, weakness, power and powerlessness, futility and hope, justice and brutal punishment, leadership and rebellion, and, most importantly, love and hate.

      The play begins, strangely enough, somewhat offstage, as several members of the gang, the “short, ugly, crude, and loud Ora” (a.k.a. Big Shot), the “tall, thin, and somewhat sensitive,” Willie Love, and the “big, husky, somber, and cynical” Perry report to each other that their would-be victim is upstairs hiding in various classrooms as others of their group attempt to seek him out. Like young, angry youths everywhere, these boys not only report the goings on, as they meet in the stinking, high-school boy’s bathroom, but swear at each other, and pretend to battle, all the while showing off their supposed virility and strength through their acts of urination and other uses of their sexual members. The following “attack” on Karolis, accordingly, is not only a response to his homosexual challenge to their leader, Foots, but is to be a kind of proving of the only thing these desperate kids have left, their “manhoods.”

     Through their jests with each other, we quickly learn that several of these young men do not even have parents, others live lives of destitution, and nearly all of them are doomed to failure in their future lives. They describe each other the way the society around them has, with words like “bastid,” “punk,” “muthafucka,” “sonofabitch,” and, yes, “nigger.” These are the lost boys of the street, forced to gather in the institution which they so detest.

      Only Foots (Ray) seems to have any intelligence, as he reports that the authorities, evidently, think highly of him, and hope that we will prevent any attack of another student. Baraka describes him, quite poetically, as “short, intelligent, manic,” a “possessor of a threatened empire.” That empire, of course, is a mean-spirited gang, ready to implode or explode, depending on which series of emotional responses they take. They have already exploded by the time they bring Karolis to their lair, having beaten him so badly that for much of the play he cannot even talk.

      Foots wisely refuses to beat him any further, insisting that to do so would be meaningless, since the white boy is already sprawled out upon the floor. But the others, particularly Ora, are determined to see more blood in revenge for his daring. Another white boy, Donald Farrell (“tall, thin, blonde, awkward, soft”)—who seems tangentially part of the gang, but is not very welcome in its midst—tries to talk them down from doing any further damage, bravely refusing to leave the toilet unless Karolis goes with him. He fails, and is literally physically expelled from their group.

     Foots, accordingly, is in a difficult position. If he does not show enough outrage for Karolis’ challenge, he will be seen as weak, possibly even in cohorts with the boys offer to “blow him.”; yet he rightly sees no pleasure in fighting someone who has already been felled. A lesser playwright may have had this character throw a couple of more sucker-punches and left it at that. But Baraka intensifies the situation by suddenly having Karolis demand a fight with Foots, a fight he knows he cannot win. It may be that the gay boy has even a lower self-esteem than the Blacks in this work; or, at least, in fighting he might have some sort of physical contact with Ray, whom he describes as “beautiful.”

     Foots, now gradually being described by Karolis and the others by his ordinary name, Ray, continues to refuse to fight. But Karolis, quite eloquently (described by the playwright as “Very skinny and not essentially attractive except when he speaks”) continues to challenge his “rival,” bragging that he will “kill him.” Suddenly everything changes, as the gang members, eager to see the fight, move in on the two, egging on the fight Ray is trying to prevent. When the fight does get underway, it is Karolis who gets Ray into a stranglehold, while the gang head is rendered inoperative; when his power is suddenly thrown into question, the others, in response, enter into the fray, beating Karolis again into submission, as Ray lays also flattened across the floor.

      Finally getting their revenge, the others move off, as Karolis drags himself into a toilet cubicle to recover. And, here again, Baraka surprises us, as with the last of his stage instructions:

 After a moment or so Karolis moves his hand. Then his
 head moves and he tries to look up. He draws his legs up
 under him and pushes his head off the floor. Finally he
 manages to get to his hands and knees. He crawls over to
 one of the commodes, pulls himself up, then falls backward
 awkwardly and heavily. At this point the door is pushed open
 slightly, then it opens completely and foots comes in. He

 stares at Karolis’ body for a second, looks quickly over
 his shoulder, then runs and kneels before the body, weeping
 and cradling the head in his arms.

     I don’t know how this scene is represented in the stage production—I’ve never seen the play performed—but the way the scene is written seems more appropriate for film than for stage, simply because we are, at first, not told that it is Foots who is about to enter the cubicle, the fact of which is kept from us, in the directions, until the very last moment. Similarly, his actions—reminding us of both a kind of crucifixion and pietà, as well as an expression of sorrow and, finally, homosexual love—startlingly reveals that the young “skinny” white boy has won this battle, at least, that the bullied has defeated his tormentors through his unconditional love. What we might have perceived as a set and predetermined series of events is, in fact, flexible. The realities of youth, as we must always admit, are never quite what they seem to be. And with one fell swoop, this gifted playwright dispenses with the very essential dichotomies which he seems to have created. Everything in this play, we suddenly recognize, is not so “black and white” as it originally seems.

      That the angry revolutionary of 1964—by this time Baraka had already traveled to Cuba, arguing that art and politics should be indissolubly linked, the same year as The Toilet writing his screed of white and black hate, Dutchman—is equally surprising—unless you know the Baraka I and others knew—a man who might continually be seen, as The New York Times obituary yesterday reiterated, as a “provocateur”—but as a true “optimist,” even though he admitted his optimism was “one of a very particular sort.” 

Los Angeles, January 11, 2014

Reprintted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2014).


Yesterday, January 10, The New York Times announced that my poet friend Amiri Baraka died on Thursday at the age of 79.


      I published Baraka’s play, “The Toilet,” in 1998 in my large, 38-play anthology, with his and his agent’s blessing. I had been in communication with Baraka for several years, he sending me, quite early on in his career, Communist-inspired manifestos—as if somehow I was oblivious of his radical leanings. I had long before been a follower of Baraka’s various contributions as editor and participant in early magazines, including the renowned Yugen (founded with then-wife Hettie Cohen) and, later, the even more important—at least for my own tastes—The Floating Bear (copies of which I discovered in a huge open, canvas bin in the back stacks of The Library of Congress), which published so many of my favorite writers of the period, including John Wieners. Baraka also was a founder of the important literary publishing venture, Totem Press, which published his first collection of poetry, the powerful Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.

       Early on in my own publishing, I was skeptical, I must admit, of poetry that combined, as Baraka increasingly did, politics as its subject. It’s not that I particularly disagreed with the political viewpoints Baraka so eloquently expressed, but I felt that poetry and fiction was simply not the best venue for those ideas. Over the years, however, I increasingly begin to perceive how impossible it was to separate one from the other. Although I continued to focus on the aesthetic issues behind the political, Amiri put his political ideas forward, sometimes quite blatantly, in his fiction, poetry, and drama.

       Despite my own antipathy to that approach, I did include Baraka, working closely with him, in my From the Other Side of the Century: New American Poetry 1960-1990 anthology. The poems of that selection seem to me to indicate his great lyricism, as well as his politically nuanced concerns; here’s one from as late as 1993:

                                               From Alba


                                               I’ve talked (remember



                                                of twisting

                                              I’m not sure the twisting?"

                                              was not the waves upon

                                              the shore



                                               to be always

                                               to be always

                                               what came after

                                               is there too


                                               So I keep us clear

                                               and with us connected

                                               as our breath

                                               to we


                                                 twisted its                                              



The twisting of this poems reality reminds, in part, of the twisting realities of so many of Baraka’s poems and plays.

       In the late 1970s I recall listening, quite intently to an interview with him—in Dutch, which strangely, relying on my Norwegian and German, I quite thoroughly comprehended—with Mac Wellman’s wife, Yolanda, in which Baraka revealed his mixed responses to these issues. For, despite Baraka’s political radicalism and, what I mention above, his intentional role as provocateur, the writer was rather intensely complex, a man deeply involved with jazz who could create highly lyrical writing in both poetry and drama.

     As I got to know Baraka better (I never knew his former self, LeRoi Jones), I realized that his outspoken political views were balanced—perhaps inspired—by his natural skepticism, even hostility, of/to any authority—particularly white authority. In a three day celebration of Italian-American poetry, the second of its kind organized by Luigi Ballerini and Paul Vangelisti at the University of California Los Angeles, I got to know Baraka far more personally, growing very fond of him as he, under his breath, brilliantly satirized the many academic statements that always occur at such university-sponsored events. I too have a difficulty with authority, particularly white authority, and we laughed together numerous times, forging a bond between us. Baraka had long-ago, gleefully, positioned himself as the bad boy of the U.S. literary scene, and he delighted always in playing that role—even if, at times, he uttered his positions only under his breath. He was, after all, basically a gentleman.

     After distributing one of his last poetic collections, Funk Lore, published by Littoral Books (the Dennis Phillips, Martha Ronk, and Paul Vangelisti-run press in Los Angeles), he turned over republication rights to my Green Integer Press. Because of financial difficulties, I’ve still not reprinted that important work, which I hope still to reissue in the future.

     At other times, he could not resist playing his role in more absurdly public ways, such as naming a number of his fellow professors at Rutgers as “Klansmen” and “Nazis,” or, even worse, by writing the post 9/11 diatribe “Somebody Blew Up America,” which suggested that Israelis were involved in that devastating attack, and had notified Jewish workers beforehand to stay home on that day. I cannot imagine how the Baraka I knew could have scribbled such nonsense; but it was equally stupid, I would argue, for the governor of New Jersey to have chosen such a figure as a “poet laureate,” a ridiculous position for nearly anyone, but a true temptation to misbehave by Baraka. Amiri was never at his best in playing such absurdly “official” roles. If often wrong-headed, the poet was always, at least in his own thinking, honest, a man of conflicting personalities intentionally demonstrating the effects of American culture on anybody who truly cared about serious issues. How could anyone like him—a radicalized Black man, later an outspoken Communist critic of white and Black culture—ever expect universal love in our highly politically divided country? For the political Right he represented everything they hated; for the Left he was often an embarrassment. For the literary community, however, he was a goad, an important challenger of all that stood still for too long and that didn’t embrace the whole of the human race. 

Los Angeles, January 11, 2014


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