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Why three different companies have turned his historic conversations into theatre
The spirit of legendary author and activist James Baldwin has long haunted New York City stages, whether theatres are producing plays by him, about him or influenced by his work. But this fall, two NYC companies are actually recreating his landmark 1965 Cambridge debate with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., while a third is staging his 1971 interview with poet Nikki Giovanni. More than half a century on, Baldwin's words and wisdom seem to be resonating with artists and audiences more than ever, a stark sign of how far we haven't come in the fight against racism in America.
Obie-winning avant-garde theatre company Elevator Repair Service is behind Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, which runs at The Public Theater through October 23. Conceived by longtime company member Greig Sargeant, who plays Baldwin opposite Ben Jalosa Williams' Buckley, it's a deft variation on documentary theatre that mixes live performance with archival footage and an imagined post-debate discussion between the writer and his best friend, A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
"Many years ago, my dear friend's father, an English teacher, told me that I should play James Baldwin on stage," says Sargeant. "I read Baldwin in college, and I always identified with him as a Black gay artist myself. I just needed to find the right vehicle."
Ultimately, he was inspired to create his own Baldwin showcase after seeing Emily Davis portray Reality Winner in the transcript-based play Is This A Room Off Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre in 2019. The question was, which real-life Baldwin conversation to pick?
"I went on YouTube and looked at everything," Sargeant says. "Interviews with James Baldwin, documentaries about James Baldwin, what others said about James Baldwin. Then I came across the debate." The topic: Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro? While watching, "I thought to myself, oh my God, this is as relevant today as it was in 1965. I found the transcript and brought it to John," Collins, the artistic director of Elevator Repair Service, who's helming the production.
Although they began working on the show in early 2020, the pandemic delayed its debut. Yet the project became even more urgent during the shutdown. When the murder of George Floyd sent protesters into the streets demanding justice and an end to racism, Baldwin's erudite, 55-year-old indictment of white supremacy proved prescient once again. Meanwhile, Buckley's touting of bootstrapping made him sound like a modern-day Fox News pundit.
None of this surprised Sargeant. "Every single waking moment of my life has been a conscious moment about race," he says. "As long as people of color continue to be treated as second-class citizens without the same opportunities and face police brutality on a daily basis, then the conversation about race in this country needs to continue. That's why we are doing this, to share the conversation with a new generation."
While anyone can watch a recording of the debate online, Sargeant and Collins believe doing it live in person in an intimate theatre with the houselights up has a completely different impact on the viewer.
"The recording is clearly a relic of the past," says Collins. "It gives the listener some insulation from what's being talked about. You feel a little bit protected, and it becomes easy to assign this debate to another time. To do it live in front of an audience is the best way to make our point: This is relevant now."
Sargeant agrees. "When Ben and I speak as Buckley and Baldwin, we are speaking right to you. I am taking no prisoners, and I am delivering a message that needs to be heard."
Christopher McElroen's company the american vicarious initially presented Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley as a virtual piece during the shutdown, and then began performing it in front of live audiences in 2021. Now it's scheduled to tour all five boroughs throughout the season, starting with Brooklyn's Old Stone House in October.
"Our show actually starts with the introduction that you see on YouTube," says McElroen, who adapted and directed the production featuring Teagle F. Bougere as Baldwin and Eric T. Miller as Buckley. "Then when the debaters appear, the live actors take over. We found that works really well and contextualizes what we are doing."
Although some performances have been in theatres, McElroen prefers nontraditional spaces, with 30 to 40 spectators seated in a single, up-close row around the debaters. "That way the audience is inherently engaged—they're not allowed to slip into anonymity the way you can in a darkened theatre," he says. "So much of theatre in New York happens in a progressive bubble. The conversation can only go so far. In taking it to the boroughs, our hope is to reach beyond that audience. We want to remove all the barriers of traditional theatre because the conversation is so important."
McElroen had known about the debate for decades, but he never thought of staging it until the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. "Just watching everything that was happening, it felt important to participate," he says. "We live-streamed the performance for three consecutive nights running up to the presidential election."
Like his peers at Elevator Repair Service, McElroen thinks sharing the debate live in person is more powerful than watching archival video online. "You can't just turn it off," he says. When asked if he feels the two shows are in competition, McElroen says no and notes that there was yet another theatricalization of the debate at Syracuse Stage last year. "We're all tackling the same material because the conversation hasn't changed in 57 years," he says. "It's quite exciting that Baldwin is having this moment."
During the pandemic shutdown, a group of theatre artists, including director Tyler Thomas, formed The Commissary, a grassroots collective that conjures historic dialogues about race by listening to the original speakers in an earpiece while repeating their words verbatim. At the suggestion of actor Kyle Beltran, the first one they tried via Zoom was a vibrant 1971 conversation between Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni about justice, freedom and empowerment that was broadcast on the PBS program SOUL!. They immediately knew they were on to something special and launched the virtual Lessons in Survival series in partnership with Off Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. When in-person theatre resumed, the Baldwin-Giovanni chat was the first one they staged in person at the Vineyard starring Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Crystal Dickinson.
Thomas, who directed the show, acknowledges that they tried doing the Baldwin-Buckley debate early on, but that "it's kind of a gnarly piece. For us, it was missing the point. We were trying to curate Black radical thought," and spotlighting Buckley's arguments sullied their intent. "Baldwin seemed to have this ability to see the past, present and future from a distance, and yet still have hope."
Unlike the debate recreations, which are, essentially, acted pieces, Thomas says the Commissary's process of "radical listening," with the original speakers' voices piped directly into the cast's ears, allows the actors to channel their forebears. "You see people right in front of you transform into their elders," she says. "We're not interpreting the characters as you do in traditional theatre. We are inviting the audience to engage with Baldwin the man in addition to his work. We are really trying to embody a type of furtherance and continuation of his legacy."
Although the details are still being finalized, Thomas hopes to start bringing the Baldwin-Giovanni discussion to schools later this year. "The simplicity of the conceit means it's hyper-accessible and can travel very easily," she says. "Taking the dialogue to where it can create paradigmatic shifts for the audience is the goal."
It's an ambition shared by all three productions. "Baldwin has given me and other people of color a voice," says Sargeant. "I don't get upset when I hear about other people doing shows with his words. I get happy, because that means more people will hear him and, hopefully, he will help invoke some sort of change in their lives to make life better for all of us."
Top image: Greig Sargeant in Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, which is currently running at The Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.