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Theatre in Review: Lessons in Survival: 1971 (Vineyard Theatre)

Crystal Dickinson, Carl Clemons-Hopkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg

We have a new genre: the James Baldwin transcript play. Last March, the theatre company known as the american vicarious presented Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley, a nearly verbatim replay of the famous argument, at the Oxford Union, between Baldwin and William F. Buckley. In September, the Public Theater will present Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, Elevator Repair Service's version of the same event. Currently at the Vineyard, Lessons in Survival: 1971 offers an (edited) conversation between Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni, originally seen on Soul!, a PBS series that was must-see television for the Black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (This piece was co-conceived by Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas, and Reggie D. White, working with the collective known as The Commissary.) Looking at the bountiful material available on YouTube, can plays pairing Baldwin with Dick Cavett, Margaret Mead, and Maya Angelou be far behind?

Although such pieces might look like the lazy playwright's recipe for insta-drama -- just condense and serve! -- the results so far have been generally riveting. Anyone with Baldwin's genius for conversation automatically makes a compelling stage presence; not one to suffer fools, he chose high-quality sparring partners. Certainly, thanks to the opposing views on offer, the Baldwin -- Buckley set-to crackles with drama. At first glance, Lessons in Survival: 1971 seems less promising; Baldwin and Giovanni weren't natural antagonists and the possibility of a ninety-minute logrolling session seems to be a clear and present danger.

As played out on the Vineyard stage, however, the middle-aged Baldwin and rather younger Giovanni strike plenty of sparks. (At the time of the taping, he was 47 and she was 28.) Initially deferential, she isn't one to surrender a point without a fight and he is energized by her tenacity. The result is an engaging tussle between two generations and a fascinating immersion in the racial issues of the era -- which are revealed to be pretty much those of today. Make of that what you will.

It's appropriate that Baldwin and Giovanni begin by talking about "Everybody's Protest Novel," the essay in which he dismantles Uncle Tom's Cabin and Richard Wright's Native Son for offering readers a form of social nutrition rooted in clich├ęs rather than the often-painful complexities of art. It's a fine starting point for two writers who insist on the primacy of the individual yet are attuned to the absurdities and horrors of race in America. For example, Baldwin describes what happens to Black people who unthinkingly absorb the standards of the white world: "You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers because you believe the same things they do...they frighten you to death. You don't eat watermelon. You know, you get so rigid you can't dance, you know, you can hardly move by the time you're 14."

Later, Giovanni, who has a sharp eye for revolutionary cant, notes, "Well, in the States...we're going through a whole thing: There is no such thing as [an] individual. Which, of course, is killing the movement...And I hate to watch it happen because it's destroying what was almost at one point a nation." Neither has any use for the Black church, which Giovanni dismisses as "commercial." Speaking of the "terrible preachers in the church I grew up in," Baldwin says, "They were nothing but pimps and hustlers really." Giovanni also dismisses any Pan-African ideas, saying, "I don't care about my third-world brothers and sisters and things like that, that I'm sure I should." It's fascinating to see how robustly these two artists, so caught up in the politics of the era, resist anything like groupthink.

Then again, when they disagree, neither will give an inch. Baldwin recalls how his father -- really his stepfather, although he never used the term - struggled to provide for nine children with a job that paid little and subjected him to daily abuse, inevitably taking out his pain on his family. Giovanni applies a withering feminist critique to this portrait, seeing it as offering an easy out for Black men who should worry less about their dignity and more about their wives and kids: "I can walk 10 paces behind the dog. It means nothing to me. But if that's what he needs, I'll never get far enough behind him for him to be a man." This is the play's liveliest sequence; Baldwin, who says, "I've written off my generation," suddenly finds himself challenged by newer, fresher points of view.

It is, of course, no small irony that that this analysis of Black masculinity is being conducted by a gay man and a lesbian. (Someday, a play will address the peculiar position of Black artists and political figures -- such as Baldwin and Bayard Rustin -- who were required to hide their private lives during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. It will be a corker.) Aside from a passing reference to "that whole homosexual hype," triggering Baldwin's comment about "cats who think of themselves as straight invent faggots. So, they can sleep with them. Without becoming a faggot themselves," the subject remains unaddressed.

Nevertheless, so much of this fifty-year-old text feels directly aimed at the predicaments of today. Baldwin's comment about "the American astonishment, the Americans have suddenly discovered that there are people in the world who don't like them," is surely a hardy perennial. But you'll feel the chill when he recalls Lorraine Hansberry telling Robert Kennedy, "I was very upset about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of that white cop in Birmingham standing on that black woman's neck." Even more to the point is this statement: "When we marched in Montgomery, Governor Wallace had the...Confederate flag flying with the state -- from the Capitol building. Which is legally insurrection, but nobody said a word about it. Because, in fact, the South and North simply concluded a contract between them to keep you and me in slavery." Watching Lessons in Survival: 1971, you may ask yourself if we have learned anything at all in the ensuing decades.

In Thomas' production, the performances offer spiritual rather than physical impersonations. The tall, bald, muscular Carl Clemons-Hopkins is virtually Baldwin's opposite; when the actor refers to himself as small, it gets a laugh. Crystal Dickinson is a rather more mature and sophisticated presence than Giovanni was in 1971. Yet both capture their characters' speech patterns and their intense intellectual engagement, their willingness to pursue a line of thought as far as it will take them. They play off each other with uncommon felicity, creating the illusion of an unscripted conversation unfolding in real time. Despite their apparent mutual affection, their exchanges bristle with undertones -- when he, pulling rank, starts referring to her as "sweetheart," or when her reasoning, begun on a friendly note, turns steely with anger.

In many ways, the production is appropriately designed, especially the sunken living room, done in burnt sienna, by You-Shin Chen and the sensitively cued lighting of Amith Chandrashaker. (Mika Eubanks' costumes look a tad modern to my eye, but at least she dresses both actors look attractively.) Other aspects of the design collude with unnecessary directorial touches. I'm not convinced of the necessity of Josiah Davis' projections of television static (seen on the floor and upstage wall) and close-ups of hands. As the conversation grows more intimate, stagehands remove furniture and props for no apparent reason. At one point, the lighting executes a dramatic shift to a single overhead unit, with the sound shifting to one side loudspeaker. It last for less than a minute, and I have no idea why it happens at all. Lee Kinney, the sound designer, has Clemons-Hopkins and Dickinson on mics, allowing for a kind of television verisimilitude that works in this context.

It's also true that the action winds down in the last ten minutes, resulting in a bit of a dying fall that is faintly disappointing. But Lessons in Survival: 1971 offers the excitement of two unorthodox, well-honed minds exploring the scar tissue at the heart of the American experiment. Now that we have Baldwin back onstage, isn't it time for some enterprising company to revive his plays Blues for Mister Charlie and The Amen Corner? The latter has, in recent years, been staged to great acclaim at London's National Theatre and Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre. What is anyone waiting for? --David Barbour

(27 June 2022)

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