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  • Jonathan Kalb

Reachable and Unreachable Minds

Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge, at the Public Theater, may be the most politically pointed production Elevator Repair Service has done. It’s certainly the most gripping work I’ve seen from this company since its wonderful Gatz over a decade ago. ERS specializes in slant-wise stagings of found texts such as novels and court transcripts. The famous 1965 debate that this piece reconstructs and reframes—between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley on the proposition "The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro"—is a major touchstone of America’s racial justice struggle, available for viewing on a film that has been seen by millions. Despite that familiarity, ERS’s live reenactment, with splendid actors concentrating more on the sense of the words than on impersonations of the famous debaters, is a brilliantly effective tool for reminding us how maddeningly relevant the event’s core questions continue to be.

Directed by John Collins, Baldwin & Buckley has no clear transition from pre-show to show. With the house lights on, the actors enter and sit in the front rows of the auditorium. Greig Sargeant (who also conceived the show) plays Baldwin and Ben Jalosa Williams plays Buckley, and they’re instantly recognizable in their natty 60s suits. Yet two other performers, younger men in contemporary clothes who could be spectators (Matthew Russell and Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) have also entered unnoticed. Only when they rise to speak do we recognize them as the undergraduates who, by tradition, Cambridge asked to take opposing positions on the proposition before the main debaters. Having sounded the core themes of the duel to come, they sit, leaving their present-day appearance to blur the distinction between 1965 and 2022.

The Cambridge debate was really two sequential speeches, with Baldwin’s opening blast a justly celebrated, landmark oration. It’s certainly the heart of the play. Yet interestingly, Sargeant doesn’t mimic Baldwin precisely, adopting none of his distinctive intense stares, for instance, or his rocking to punctuate points. Sargeant speaks evenly, with a serene, slow-burn self-possession, laying out each step in the famous argument as if moving through chapters of a grimly familiar horror story. White fear is the main source of racism—racism is a scourge to whites and Blacks alike (“Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts”)—Black exploitation is a measureless debt that demands recompense (“I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing”)—and resolution may be impossible because Blacks and whites live in two different “realities,” only one of which permits a clear view of oppression. Even if you know what’s coming with Buckley’s hideous response, you feel energized as Baldwin-Sargeant wraps up, cheered that the whole gloriously pithy speech has been memorized, eloquently delivered, and heard again in 2022.

Very quickly, any gladness is tamped down as Williams acutely replicates Buckley’s cold indifference to all Baldwin has said. Imitating Buckley’s silky hauteur but not employing his trademark lip-curl and Mid-Atlantic drawl, he makes Buckley’s remarks freshly shocking because, although we know very well that such thoughts are still common in our time, we actually don’t hear them spoken out loud very often. One cringes hearing Buckley inform the renowned Black intellectual that his skin color is “irrelevant” to his arguments; that his “flagellations of our civilization” amount to “posturing”; and that he should be grateful to be addressed today as a “fellow American” rather than a “Negro.” In the film, Buckley’s magisterial arrogance and reptilian sangfroid damn him because they’ve dated so poorly. His oily manner makes his brittle arguments odious before you even take them in.

In the play, by contrast, Williams’s comparatively mild condescension allows you to listen and assess his ideas, such as they are, and compare them to those of present-day right-wingers. Everything he says, we realize, can be heard essentially unaltered today on Fox, Drudge, Breitbart, The Daily Wire, Truth Social, Parler, etc. That is horrible! Buckley fails to see why supporting segregation politely can’t be seen as respectable, for instance. He attacks Baldwin personally (Baldwin never did so with him), calling him a hypocrite for claiming to be oppressed when he’s “the toast of the town” wherever he goes, then fobs off that ad hominem attack as a general refutation of racial progressivism. Buckley thinks lack of sympathy for Blacks should qualify as proof of respect for them, then turns and blames them for their own suffering because they supposedly lack the ambition and industry of other minorities like Jews and Italians. His fuming about out-of-bounds threats to overthrow Western civilization could be a verbatim quote from Tucker Carlson.

So much for respect. Baldwin, not a man to parade laurels, was always very proud of his resounding 544-to-164 victory at Cambridge Union, the world’s oldest debating society. When I first saw the debate film, I remember thinking it was too bad it had to take place in England. How much more of a productive scandal it might’ve caused had the two men squared off at, say, some southern American university newly opened to Blacks, such as the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt or the University of Georgia. That, obviously, was a fantasy about intellectuals and artists commanding more power than they’ve ever had in the U.S. (it’s also unlikely Baldwin would ever have accepted such an invitation). Still, given the way Baldwin & Buckley ends, I have an inkling Collins and Sargeant might share my fantasy.

The last ten minutes of the show are a sort of meta-theatrical coda in which Sargeant and the actor Daphne Gaines speak both as themselves and as Baldwin and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. As the writers, in lines taken from letters and interviews, they scoff at charges that Black demands for social change are too precipitate. As themselves, the actors turn their gaze on their own colleagues, reflecting on their experience participating in ERS’s 2008 production of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. They explicitly call out the company for first developing that piece with “no actual black people in the room” and then belatedly involving them “to be the black people.”

Hansberry is given the last word: “I would like to submit that . . . there is a problem about white liberals. The problem is we have to find some way . . . to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”

As the show ended, I looked around the Public’s sold-out 275-seat Anspacher Theater and counted two Black faces in the enthusiastic crowd. (For comparison, there must have been 800 or more in the 970-seat Hudson Theater on Broadway the night I saw the Black Death of a Salesman there, whatever that means.) I feel sure that almost everyone at the Anspacher—radicalism and residual white-liberal racism aside—came to Baldwin & Buckley wholeheartedly on Baldwin’s side. Yet at that moment, the old fantasy from the film rose in my heart again. I found myself hoping against hope that this lucid and gritty artwork might possibly find its way in the future to venues friendlier to Buckley than Greenwich Village, and maybe even change a few still-reachable minds.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge conceived by Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service directed by John Collins The Public Theater

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