“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” When James Baldwin wrote these words, the Civil Rights Movement was at its mid-1960s apex, perhaps blunting their cautionary impact. Cut to the start of the next decade and, unfortunately, Baldwin’s long-sighted reminder came into sharper focus for others, too, as the bloody cost of advocating for social justice continued to rise. That’s also when Baldwin participated in a 1971 televised conversation with fellow writer and poet Nikki Giovanni, almost two decades his junior, who shared Baldwin’s deep concerns about the often crushing weight of the past, though not without some generational adjustments.
Originally broadcast on Soul!, an early PBS program dedicated to showcasing Black arts and politics, Baldwin and Giovanni’s one-on-one echoes contemporary concerns while also remaining decidedly of its era. Unearthed by a theater collective and other trapped-at-home artists during the pandemic for an online recreation, it has now been transformed again, this time into a staged adaptation titled Lessons in Survival: 1971. In truth, “googled” is likely the more appropriate verb for how someone found the Baldwin-and-Giovanni conservation, since it is entirely available on YouTube, where, to be honest, it is best experienced, not least because in that digital form it can be rewound for another listen, which a few of Baldwin and Giovanni’s complex, unannotated arguments definitely require.
Under the blocking-obsessed direction of Tyler Thomas, Baldwin and Giovanni’s sit down has been cut up and stitched back together into a 90-minute play saddled with intrusive lighting and sound design from Amith Chandrashaker and Lee Kinney respectively, as well as affectedly trippy projections from Josiah Davis. Only set designer You-Shin Chen’s sunken living room and burnt-orange sofas blend well with the show’s most important element: its words. Everything else just distracts from the essential.
Co-conceived by Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas and Reggie D. White and The Commisssary, Lessons in Survival: 1971 has no playwright listed; there is only the extemporaneous genius of Baldwin and Giovanni whose in-the-moment depth of thought will likely pain the fragile egos of any aspiring dramatists in the audience. Though initially it seems as if the 28-year-old Giovanni will be more of an interviewer than an interlocutor, simply listening to the 47-year-old Baldwin wax philosophic about his life, eventually it becomes obvious that Giovanni’s reverence for Baldwin is neither a silent nor always agreeable one. She most pointedly takes Baldwin to task for being too forgiving of Black men who mistreat Black women because of the slings and arrows they suffer from racism. As she makes emphatically clear, her generation of Black women is done putting up with that.
The tall, muscular, mid-30s Carl Clemons-Hopkins (best known as the much put-upon Marcus in the HBO Max series Hacks) is an odd choice to portray the diminutive, middle-aged, and decidedly unfit Baldwin (there’s lots of herbal smoking in the production). But, ubiquitous public images of Baldwin notwithstanding, the performance mostly works, largely because Baldwin’s thoughts flow so naturally from Clemons-Hopkins, as if they truly belong to the actor. Still, there are lingering problems related to the physical disconnect and age gap between performer and subject: the youthful Clemons-Hopkins can’t quite convey the full scope of the real Baldwin’s world weariness, which is poignantly apparent throughout the Soul! episode, and there is no visual sense of a generational divide between Baldwin and Giovanni, in effect turning the frequent mentioning of one during their back-and-forth into head-scratching Brechtian ruptures.
Despite these limitations, however, Clemons-Hopkins manages to touchingly carry off Baldwin’s almost paternal encouragement of Giovanni, as the exhausted expatriate passes the activist baton not just to her generation, but to her specifically. Baldwin’s faith in Giovanni, who Crystal Dickinson embodies with a coiled intellectual ferocity, is palpable. But he also knows that the fight for a better world comes with much more disappointment than joy, a lesson Giovanni makes clear to Baldwin she already has learned.
Lessons in Survival: 1971 (through June 30, 2022)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission