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Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 6, 2022

Greig Sargeant
Photo by Joan Marcus
African American writer James Baldwin famously wrote: "I know what I'm asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand." In the televised 1965 debate between Baldwin and renowned conservative author and political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., the impossible meant no less than forging a new idea of America that isn't imbricated with systemic racism. Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, a mostly verbatim presentation of that debate, was conceived by Greig Sargeant and Elevator Repair Service and is currently playing at the Public Theater. It shows that issues around race have not changed all that much in the last 57 years. Indeed, in 2022, Baldwin's vision seems hopelessly out of reach.

The play begins with Mr. Heycock (Matthew Russell at the performance I attended), the proposer of the debate's motion, offering first the usual cell phone reminder and then a land acknowledgement calling attention to the Indigenous people who once occupied the space on which the theatre stands. He then introduces the central proposition, "The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro" that framed the event in Cambridge in February 1965. The audience, therefore, straddles the past and present, and we are continually reminded that the topics discussed are not strictly those that existed only in a gone-by era.

Adhering to formal debate guidelines, Heycock's proposal is followed by opposition by Mr. Burford (Christopher-Rashee Stevenson), who argues, "If the American dream has made any progress, and I think it has, it has been made in spite of the suffering and inequality of the American Negro, and not because of it." Citing the number of African American millionaires and doctors, Burford argues that the American Dream is (slowly) leveling out the racial disparities in the country.

The focus shifts to Baldwin (Greig Sargeant), who adroitly outlines the fallacies of the opposition and thereby explains what it means to be Black in America. There are, he indicates, daily reminders, some that are violently inflicted but many that are simply off-hand remarks, that call to mind the foundations of white supremacy upon which the country has been built. Notably, in an exchange featured later in a fictional scene with playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines), Baldwin says about this faulty construction, "We've got to sit down and rebuild this house."

Jalosa Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus
Buckley (Ben Jalosa Williams, who also did the sound design) takes the floor, and while he does not discount the pervasive societal racism, he suggests that the problem is not with the system, but with individuals. He explains that better education, for instance, of both African American and white people will make for a smarter electorate and a more industrious population, which seems apathetic to the opportunities that are available to them. He embroiders his arguments with his typical eruditeness, but in the end, he is no match for Baldwin's impassioned rhetoric. Baldwin is the hands-down winner.

Directed by John Collins, the performances are excellent. Above all, Sargeant and Williams effectively channel their real-life counterparts. Sargeant beautifully captures Baldwin's quiet intensity, and just as Baldwin did, he makes the listener lean forward to take in the full impact of the exquisitely wrought words. Williams embodies Buckley's elitist and condescending posture and conveys the supercilious vocal cadence that makes his narrow worldview seem so expansive.

However, the debate, which arguably makes for gripping television drama, lacks the theatrical sparks on stage. Since the participants in the debate do not engage with but only respond to each other–without the benefit of camera close-ups–the drama never catches fire. As a result, the final coda, which lasts about five minutes or so, is the most satisfying part of the evening. Here, the layers of performance combine to create an intellectually and emotionally stirring depiction of Baldwin and Hansberry while also including a metatheatrical riff on the origin of the production we have just watched.

Last spring, the Vineyard Theatre presented Lessons in Survival: 1971, which is a play that uses as its script a verbatim interview between Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. That production mined the original script for its theatricality and set the dialogue within an abstract living room. Moving the conversation from the television studio to a domestic space gives the piece more intimacy and immediacy. Baldwin and Buckley (with scenic design by dots, lighting by Alan C. Edwards, and costumes by Jessica Jahn) maintains the formality of a debate arena, containing two desks and table lecterns within an often fully lit theatre space. It seems better suited to a venue like the 92nd Street Y.

When I got home after the performance, I turned on the news, and one of the lead stories had to do with Trump supporters threatening civil war if election results aren't overturned and power isn't returned to patriarchal white supremacists. The America they envision seems to be the antithesis of Baldwin's metaphorical reconstructed house. As theatre, Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge may lack urgency, but the impossible task of creating an equitable and accepting society remains as crucial as ever. And we must demand it.

Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge
Through October 23, 2022
Elevator Repair Service Production
The Public Theater, Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: