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Theatre in Review: Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge (Elevator Repair Service/Public Theater)

Greig Sergeant. Photo: Joan Marcus

Strange how an event from the past can insert itself into the contemporary conversation. The 1965 debate, at the Cambridge Union, between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, was an impressive matchup at a time when race in America was a scorchingly hot topic -- when isn't it? -- and public intellectuals enjoyed a now-unimaginable celebrity status. The debate was televised and much discussed; an entire book, Nicholas Buccola's The Fire is Upon Us, was written about it. But, unsurprisingly, it faded from the public imagination; in America there are so many controversies, so little time.

Now, in a single year, we've gotten two distinct theatrical recreations of that long-ago bout: Last season, the Off Off Broadway company the american vicarious presented Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley, which, this season, will tour all five boroughs. Currently, the Public has Elevator Repair Service's version. Both largely stick to the original transcript, letting each man have his eloquent say and leaving the audience to make of them what they will.

It's worth noting that, even though American politics (racial or otherwise) have shifted in the ensuing decades, the theatre can't let go of Baldwin and Buckley. In June, Vineyard Theatre presented Lessons in Survival, 1971, taken from a conversation, broadcast on public television, between Baldwin and the poet Nikki Giovanni. And Best of Enemies, which revisits the infamous ABC News brawl between Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Republican National Convention, opens in the West End next month, following a successful run at the Young Vic. What hold do these men exert on our imagination? Why is the theatre is so drawn to these séance-like exercises?

In the case of the Cambridge debate, surely it is because its central proposition -- "The American Dream has been at the expense of the American Negro" -- feels entirely of this moment. (One could imagine, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan squaring off over the same point, with Nikole Hannah-Jones and Bill Maher commenting from the sidelines.) It is positively eerie how this discourse from the era of Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King evokes the current hysteria over critical race theory and white privilege; the way Baldwin and Buckley talk past each will be, dispiritingly, all too familiar.

The ever-eloquent Baldwin argues, persuasively, that the rural economy of the South was built on slavery and that racism poisons Black and white people alike. Buckley, using his singularly convoluted syntax -- where was his copy of The Elements of Style? -- tries to flip the argument, conceding that, yes, of course, racism is a terrible problem while suggesting that the real culprit is a lack of initiative in the Black community. Assuming a sympathetic pose, he tries to nail his point with a single, out-of-context, set of figures about the small number of Black physicians; it's a case study in missing the point. Baldwin's case is grounded in detail and personal experience; Buckley offers airy theories, designed more to dodge than persuade.

In any case, viewers interested in revisiting the Cambridge debate are spoiled for choice, having access to three versions. The original event, available on YouTube, is hard to beat, as it offers these two indelible personalities: Baldwin's resonant speaking voice and mordant attitude contrasted with Buckley's theatrical self-presentation, forever teetering on the edge of self-parody. You also get the reaction of the audience -- Buckley rather noticeably bombs with this crowd of young Brits -- but the quality of the video is less than great.

Each of the staged versions has its strengths and weaknesses. Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley does a better job of suggesting the simmering tension between the antagonists, who clearly loathed each other. Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge arguably showcases their orations more effectively. But the latter piece starts off on jarringly false note with opening speeches from a pair of Cambridge students. Speaking in support of Baldwin, Gavin Price (who shares the role across the performance week with Matthew Russell) is listless and uninflected; Christopher-Rashee Stevenson, delivering Buckley's preamble, can't stop commenting on his character, making it blazingly clear that he disapproves of his lines. It is the most irritating performance I have witnessed in months.

The mood shifts markedly when Greig Sargeant takes over as Baldwin. (Sargeant co-conceived the piece with Elevator Repair Service.) An innately powerful presence, Sargeant gets full value out of each searing word, especially when noting that, "leaving aside all the physical facts which one can quote, leaving aside rape, or murder, leaving aside the bloody catalog of oppression...the most private, the most serious thing [racism] does to the subjugated, is to destroy his sense of reality." Or, put more succinctly, "It comes as a great shock to discover that [watching] Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you!" Broadening his argument, he notes that racism leads poor whites to believe "that no matter how terrible their lives may be" and "no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least the are not black." He adds, "Of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst."

At the performance I attended, Sargeant briefly got lost, repeating part of his speech, but, overall, he is nothing less than riveting. If I have any reservation, it is that he sometimes puts Baldwin's underlying anger in too plain view. Teagle F. Bougere, in the american vicarious production, does a better job of conveying Baldwin's tightly coiled manner, the certainty that his excoriating words need no emotional gilding. Then again, when I saw Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley last season, Bougere rushed his delivery at times, to slightly undermining effect.

At the Public, Ben Jalosa Williams dispenses with the mannerisms that made Buckley a target for comedians in the 1960s. It's a smart move, putting the focus on how Buckley relies on personal insults and off-topic sallies while positioning himself as a defender of Western civilization. A devout Catholic deeply wounded by Baldwin's assertion in a 1962 New Yorker article that "the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms," he sarcastically avers that Baldwin "tells us our civilization rests on the ranting of the Hebrew sunbaked fanatics called Jesus and Paul." Getting personal, he adds, "You cannot go to a university in the United States, a university in the United States...in which Mr. Baldwin is not the toast of the town," as if a few best-selling books have ushered in a new era of racial equality. He adds, "You cannot go to a university of the United States in which practically all other problems of public policy are preempted by the primary policy of concern for the Negro." Obviously, he never dropped in on Bob Jones University, or Ole Miss during its 1962 race riots -- or were the latter his idea of "a primary policy of concern"?

Despite Williams' vigorous work, I sometimes missed Eric T. Miller, in the american vicarious production, tilting his head upward, ever so slightly, before, citing the neoconservative sociologist Nathan Glazer by way of insisting, "There are a great many medical schools who by no means practice discrimination, who are anxious to receive, to train Negro doctors; there are scholarships available to put them through. But in fact that particular energy, which [Glazer] remarks was so noticeable in the Jewish community, and to a certain and lesser extent, in the Italian, Irish community, for some reason is not there." The way that Miller's Buckley scoops up three ethnic groups into a basket of feisty, overachieving lower orders -- some with more initiative than others, mind you -- may be the very definition of unconscious privilege.

Buckley and Baldwin at Cambridge has other weaknesses. For some reason, Williams twice slips into Buckley's bizarre, drawling voice, if only for a few seconds, a choice that distracts rather than illuminates. The production ends, inconclusively, with a brief coda featuring Baldwin and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry; it is so awkwardly structured that Sargeant is forced to step out of character and tell us it's time to go home. (Surely director John Collins might have done something about this.) This is also not much of a showcase for the design team, although one admires the skill with which Alan C. Edwards' lighting conjures the final scene, depicting a living room (scenic consultation by the collective known as dots) out of thin air.

Still, in all three versions, the Cambridge debate offers a clarifying view of the original sin, built into this country's DNA, with which we are still coming to grips. At one point, Baldwin refers to Robert Kennedy's remark that in four decades we might see a Black president. ("And that sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people," he adds, witheringly.) That milestone has come and gone, only a couple of years after Kennedy's projected due date. Indeed, we've had our Black president. And yet, here we are. --David Barbour

(3 October 2022)

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