By Holli Harms
As I exited The Public’s Anspacher Theater I overheard an audience member exclaim to another, “God, nothing has changed in 57 years.” She was referring to the debate we had just witnessed on stage between James Baldwin (played by Greig Sergeant) and William F. Buckley Jr. (played by Ben Jalosa Williams) that was held at the University of Cambridge in Britain in 1965. The question being argued, whether “The American dream was achieved at the expense of the American Negro?”
This historical debate was filmed and televised. You can watch it in its entirety on Youtube. But I will argue that to see it in person with a theater full of people is the way to fully experience the depth of the words, the height of the emotions, and the breadth of the ideas presented. The deep, heartfelt, ugly truth of both our past and present history is showcased as personal on one side, and observer, commentator, and spectator on the other. To hear their words reverberate throughout the space and how it hits you is hard to define. These are two of America’s greatest thinkers in verbal opposition and you are present to witness it unfold.
This is the perfect point in our history for this debate to be recreated and the Elevator Repair Service’s production of BALDWIN AND BUCKLEY AT CAMBRIDGE now running at The Public hits like an arrow of truth in this time of ours, as my fellow audience member said so aptly “…Nothing has changed in 57 years.” As you listen to Baldwin describe how people have been subjugated by white America, have been kept in a place of oppression, and have NOT been allowed to experience the “American Dream” you cannot help but think of the crimes by citizens and those currently in public office that continue to be committed on people of color. Crimes of racism, that are both violent and political. Nothing has changed.
In the 1965 debate, Baldwin centered his argument around voting and the people in the deep south who were kept from registering. We see the same thing today when voting regulations in states like Texas, and North Carolina are made to purposely restrict people of color.
Buckley begins his side of the argument, quietly attacking Baldwin, saying that he, Baldwin, cannot say he stands for all Negroes. Buckley then points out as an aside that Mr. Baldwin is speaking in a British accent, which Baldwin is not. It is assumed that Buckley is trying to point out that the British accent is Baldwin’s way of endearing himself to his “audience.” That comment is a micro-aggression of the worst kind. Buckley is pompous and assumes all the while his superiority over Baldwin. There is no question about who will win the debate because, in essence, there really is no debate, only distraction.
Director John Collins does not impose great action or forced movement on this grand piece of theater. He understands the power of stillness and allows for it. The actors are, all of them, wonderful, including the two actors who portray the young undergraduates who are each given five minutes to first debate the question, Mr. Heycock (Gavin Price) and Mr. Buford (Christopher-Rashee Stevenson).
When it comes down to it, there is no debate, no argument, as there is no question. No question exists, either for the students doing the prologue debate or for our headliners. If you know the history of race relations in this country; murders, deaths simply because of color then you understand that this debate was always going to be a loss for Buckley. And what baffles me is that even though there isn’t really a question to debate, because you can’t question an absolute truth, we are still arguing it today. Arguing out of fear of loss of power for white Americans.
The evening ends with a post-debate micro-moment between Baldwin and his dear friend and famous writer in her own right, Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines). It’s a chance to see the man and not just the orator.
Elevator Repair Service is a master of theater of the essence of America. They have taken a debate between two brilliant intellectuals and brought to life their words, re-establishing their importance in American History.
New York Premiere of BALDWIN AND BUCKLEY AT CAMBRIDGE
Conceived by Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
Cast: Daphne Gaines (Lorraine Hansberry), Gavin Price (Mr. Heycock), Greig Sargeant (James Baldwin), Christopher-Rashee Stevenson (Mr. Burford), and Ben Jalosa Williams (William F. Buckley, Jr.). Matthew Russell ( Understudy)
Creative: Costume Design Jessica Jahn, Lighting Design Alan C. Edwards, Sound Design Ben Jalosa Williams, Scenic Consulting DOTS, Stage Manager Jack Ford.
BALDWIN AND BUCKLEY AT CAMBRIDGE playing at The Public’s Anspacher Theater, Tickets HERE
September 24 – October 23, 2022
Running Time: 60 minutes, no intermission