By Tulis McCall
Get over to the Vineyard Theatre pronto. But only if you are intrigued by the highest of verbal pas de deux. This production is based on Nikki Giovanni’s (Crystal Dickinson) interview with James Baldwin (Reggie D. White the night I saw this) in 1971 for a PBS series. The conversation is so elevated and so deep that you just have to give over to it, because trying to get ahead of these two is nigh on impossible. Off hand I cannot think of a topic that is not covered, turned inside out and pushed on to the next topic.
The presentation is critical here and not apparent unless you know ahead of time. These two actors are listening to the tape of this interview while they are performing. There is a name for this technique that I do not know, but that is the gist of it. So every nuance of the famous Baldwin speech pattern is adhered to but not specifically mimicked – which is a good thing. These two fine actors embody the essence of Giovanni and Baldwin without losing their unique talents.
Giovanni spends a good deal of the first third of this piece listening. As she gather steam you get the impression that she was just biding her time and filling her coffers. When she becomes fully engaged she not only makes Baldwin stop talking (something few people could do), she makes him listen. It is then that the dialogue becomes a dialogue and the two set off for what feels like uncharted territory. There is a great deal of talk of the relationship of the sexes, especially of black men and women. Who are the people who define other people and don’t realize they are warping their own self definition? What is black? What is white? Who is copping out by saying “that’s the way it is,” and who will refuse to let those strong powerful people off the hook? Who is on top by being on the bottom? What is morality for some folks is not for all, is it?
These two feast on topics. Discussion is like the air they breath. It fuels them.
The strangest part of this production is that for some reason someone decided to put this conversation (cigarettes and all) in a sort of living room situation. Giovanni and Baldwin roam around this space with no defined purpose, and the wandering takes its toll. The reason they keep talking is because they are taping. When you take away the raison d’etre of a piece it is like taking away the heart beat. No matter how much these two engage (and they DO) I didn’t understand why they stayed. There was nothing to stop them from leaving. And the reason for staying was never made clear.
Still it is an intriguing evening that will stay with me for a long time. The original can be found on YouTube here. But if you want to feel the electricity – get over to the Vineyard.
“Lessons in Survival: 1971.” – Based on Nikki Giovanni’s interview with James Baldwin for WNET’s television series SOUL!, directed by Tyler Thomas.
You-Shin Chen (scenic design), Mika Eubanks (costume design), Amith Chadrashaker (lighting design), Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design and original music
Lessons in Survival: 1971 is co-conceived by Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas and Reggie D. White, and is created with The Commissary. Through June 30th. Tickets HERE.