Elevator Repair Service specializes in staging performances taken from literary or historic texts. Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge continues in that tradition. Taken from the transcript of the now famous debate by novelist and essayist James Baldwin and editor and spokesman William F. Buckley, Jr., two noted intellectuals, at the Cambridge Union, the debating and free speech society and the largest society at the University of Cambridge, this is a recreation of the event held on February 18, 1965. The production has been conceived by actor Greig Sargeant (who also appears as Baldwin) with Elevator Repair Service and is directed by ERS’s founder and artistic director John Collins.
Baldwin and Buckley were among the most famous thinkers of their time. Baldwin’s incendiary essay, The Fire Next Time, had a cataclysmic effect when it was published in 1963, and his latest novel Another Country had been published in paperback in Britain on the day of the debate. Buckley, editor of The National Review, was already known as the father of modern American conservatism. The debate poses the question “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Apparently the Cambridge Union format was for each speaker to make a statement, with no give and take between them, and then the society members voted on who was most convincing.
Baldwin speaks from his own experience but generalizes to include all Black people in his arguments condemning the doctrine of white supremacy. He chooses to leave out the “bloody catalog of oppression” but instead points out how suppression of rights destroys the Black man’s sense of reality. “It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthright, and to which you owe your life and identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.” He reminds us that the U.S. has been built on cheap labor: “I picked the cotton, I carried it to market, and built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. The southern oligarchy was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women, and the murder of my children.”
He goes on to condemn the way that history is taught in American schools and how it affected him: “When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I. That I was a savage about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And of course, I believed it. I didn’t have any choice. Those were the only books there were.” He reminds us that “urban renewal” usually means that “Negroes simply are going to be thrown out on the street which is what it means now.” He uses the statistic that an entire people have surrendered to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them.” He concludes by saying that “there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence will wreck it.”
Stating the conservative viewpoint, Buckley begins his statement by speaking directly to Baldwin as an abstract philosopher: “The fact that your skin is black is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise.” According to Buckley, it is a fact that “seven-tenths of the white income of the United States is equal to the income that is made by the average Negro.” Continuing this line of reasoning, he states that the U.S. “grants a greater degree of material well-being to the American Negro than that that is enjoyed by 95 percent of the other peoples of the human race.” He goes on to say that the United States is the most mobile society in the world today, and that “mobility…will give opportunities to the Negroes which they must be encouraged to take.” He concludes that “the fundamental friend of the Negro people is the United States is the good nature and the generosity, and the good wishes, is decency, the fundamental decency that do lie at the reserves of the spirit of the American people.”
A vote is taken and tallied as to who in the Cambridge Union voted in favor of the motion and who voted against. So as not to ruin the suspense, the answer will not be revealed here although it is now a matter of record. The play concludes with an invented conversation between Baldwin and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry on race in America. Baldwin declares that it is time to rebuild this house while Hansberry insists that it will not get done with the cooperation of whites. Speaking of writers demanding the impossible, they segue to their feelings about the Black characters in William Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury. This makes Sargeant and Daphne Gaines as Hansberry break the fourth wall and remind us that the Elevator Repair Service performed it at The Public in 2015. Originally performed at Dartmouth in 2007 with an all-white cast also playing the Black characters, Sergeant and Gaines were brought into the company to portray them realistically. The point of this may be to demonstrate that there has been some progress, however slight.
Director Collins has helped all five of his actors to give very strong takes on their real life characters. While neither Sargeant nor Williams sound nor look like the originals, they are forceful in making their statements. As Baldwin, Sargeant is rather academic while Williams as Buckley is more than a little sarcastic. Introducing Baldwin, Gavin Price as David Heycock of Pembroke College and the proposer of the motion is excessively cheerful, while Christopher-Rashee Stevenson as Jeremy Burford of Emmanuel College, the opposer, is rather wry. (In service of strict historical accuracy, Burford is played here as a Black student while he was actually white.) In the last (invented) scene, Gaines as playwright and activist Hansberry in conversation with Baldwin and then later as herself is feisty and spirited but in only five pages of playing time she is not given enough latitude to make much of an impression.
The setting for Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge is minimalist to say the least, the design credited to scenic consultant dots. Two matching tables, two matching podiums and two matching chairs face each other on the diagonal. Baldwin remains behind his podium while he addresses the audience, while Buckley moves around the space while he speaks. The final scene with Baldwin and Hansberry in a living room includes a sofa, a lamp and an end table in what appears to be her home. Jessica Jahn’s costumes put both men in dark formal suits but without ties. Baldwin wears a dark printed shirt whereas Buckley wears solid white. Hansberry is entirely in white, slacks and blouse.
Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge should stir up controversy as their 1965 topic is still relevant. Such a debate today would have a great deal more ammunition than either of these men had at the time. However, one can still hear both points of view today given by liberals and conservatives, respectively. The fact that the Baldwin/Buckley debate is still relevant can be witnessed from the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2013 and the 2019 publication of The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Debate over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola as well as. This is a question which has not been resolved in the intervening 57 years.
Like Lesson in Survival: 1971 which recreated the James Baldwin/Nikki Giovanni interview that had appeared on the television show “Soul!,” the question arises is this a play. Whether it is or it isn’t, it is definitely a theatrical experience and an historical one besides. It is not for those looking exclusively for entertainment but instead the heady play of ideas. It requires a good deal of concentration and those who follow its arguments will be greatly rewarded as to the question of race in America.
Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge (extended through October 23, 2022)
The Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.PublicTheater.org
Running time: one hour and ten minutes without an intermission