Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge, the 1965 debate of James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union, University of Cambridge, UK is receiving its New York Premiere at The Public Theater. You need to see this production presented by Elevator Repair Service (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury) for many reasons. First, it’s vitally important for us in this present moment to hear and understand Baldwin’s criticism about our nation from the perspective of an articulate novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, identified as one of the greatest Black writers of the Twentieth Century. The production, which captures the debate in its entirety, will also help you understand Baldwin’s realistic acknowledgement of American attitudes and sensibilities, many of these carryovers to our present society and divisive culture, whether we are loathe to admit it or not.
The unadorned, bare bones production highlights the arguments Baldwin and Buckley presented at Cambridge in response to the question, “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” With a minimalist set, two desks, chairs, lamps staged with the audience on three sides at the Anspacher Theater, the evening replicates the words if not the tone, ethos or dynamic drama of Baldwin (Greig Sargeant) and Buckley (Ben Jalosa Williams) in their face-off.
It is a worthy triumph of ERS to re-imagine these two titans, one eloquently speaking for Black America, the other a conservative writer and National Review founder. The latter supported a slow walk of desegregation which Blacks must “be ready for,” and were “not yet ready for.” Baldwin’s and Buckley’s perspectives reflected national attitudes, especially after the legislative gains made for Blacks in 1954, 1964 and 1965 which Baldwin didn’t trust because the power structures of the South and North didn’t adequately enforce the laws. In viewing their comments now, as our nation experiences “in-your-face” racism and discrimination, that would overthrow all gains (revealed in striking down Roe vs. Wade and most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act) the concepts in the debate between Baldwin and Buckley are highly relevant and worthy of review.
The inherent drama of the debate, its electric personages, and the crisis of the time eludes the actors and the director. Indeed, perhaps the task is impossible without sufficient artistry, and imagination to suggest what once was, the frenetic and feverish times of the country that in 1965 saw the Watts riots, which Baldwin alludes to at the end of his speech.
When Baldwin and Buckley debated, America was still fighting segregation in the deep South, the effects of which Cambridge student Mr. Heycock (Gavin Price on Saturdays) discusses to introduce Baldwin’s arguments. He mentions statistics quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. when they conducted a protest supporting voting rights in Alabama. Heycock states, there were more Negroes in jail for protesting than on the voting rolls. He enumerates other statistics. These identified the extent to which Blacks had been excluded from the White society’s opportunities and their aspirations to achieve the American Dream: jobs with benefits, college educations, economic prosperity, home ownership and more.
As both Heycock and later Sargeant’s Baldwin make clear during their fact-laden presentations, in no way was the Black experience in America “separate but equal” to that of Whites. Their lives, their worlds, their perspectives, opportunities and approach to daily living was anything but equivalent.
Though this was especially so in the South, the quality of life disparities also were prevalent in Northern cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles. There, Blacks were shoveled into the projects branded as a Utopian “urban renewal.” Actually, there was no renewal, as Blacks were crowded into broken-down buildings and crime-ridden ghettos, where rats flourished and the garbage spilled over into the streets. All of these points, Sargeant’s Baldwin mentions, disputing that Blacks have an equal opportunity in achieving the “American Dream,” which is obtain by Whites at Black’s expense.
The debate is a historic call to remembrance and worthy as such, which is why it bears being watched on YouTube, after seeing the Public’s production, directed by John Collins. The YouTube video reveals the unmistakable ambience of Cambridge and the scholars and students present in their formality and sobriety, laughing at Baldwin’s wit and wisdom and sometimes laughing with ridicule at Buckley’s pompousness and stumbles into bigotry.
Indeed, what is absent from the Public Theater production is this sense of moment. Missing is the ambience of setting and the nature of the audience which played a role in relaying the importance of the Baldwin and Buckley debate. These two giants in their own right honored Cambridge with their presence and concern, conveying American voices and perspectives. The gravitas is lacking in the production and is a possible misstep. Though an announcement is made as to the setting, more should have been done to convey the place and time. With a minimum of dramatization, the production wasn’t as dynamic as it could have been.
Creatively conveying time and place was not the choice of ERS or director Collins. Thus, Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge is uneven. In structure and format the production follows the original debate. The elements are modernized, costumes in modern dress, not the black bow tie and suit worn for the formal Cambridge debate.
Also, somewhat confusing is that Price’s Heycock acknowledges the Lanape Indigenous Tribe who owned the land the Public Theater rests on. Then immediately he segues into the original debate structure. Perhaps as is done with other productions at the Public, a voice over by Oskar Eustis honoring the Lanape would have been less confusing. The separation of the present America from the debate setting is needed so the audience might reflect on the history of the land. After a pause, the setting of Cambridge, 1965 could then be established.
When Heycock finishes his introduction, Cambridge student Mr. Burford (Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) introduces Buckley’s argument, that it is not true that “the American Dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.” To refute this Mr. Burford points out that 35 Black millionaires have achieved the American Dream. This justification that Blacks have attained the dream and not at the expense of Blacks is an example of the convoluted logic that will follow in Buckley’s confused and misdirected arguments.
Burford’s belittling statement in ignoring the huge unequal and disproportionate number of the few wealthy Blacks to numerous wealthy Whites deserves laughter and ridicule. Interestingly, the audience at the Public didn’t respond, as bigoted as the comment was. Possibly the lack of context of time and place contributed to an absence of audience engagement with Burford’s obnoxious statement and at other times during the performance.
Identifying the number of Black millionaires, while ignoring the large percentage of Blacks who live in poverty, evidences the superficiality of Buckley’s arguments which follow Burford’s introduction. As Williams’ Buckley launches into his presentation, we understand that the reality that Baldwin just portrayed about the Black experience in America, will in no way enter in to Buckley’s discussion. Indeed, he dismisses and ignores Baldwin’s brilliant conceptualizations, something which Baldwin intuits that the White culture does to perpetuate the status quo. Throughout his presentation Buckley doesn’t acknowledge that White culture controls, creates and dictates the Black experience. In no way is Baldwin’s picture of reality confronted by Buckley in his disjointed and at times abstruse speech.
Buckley diverges from Baldwin’s statements so that he does not dispute that the American Dream exists at the expense of Black exploitation. He ignores Baldwin’s dense discussion that the American Dream by its very nature in the White culture’s understanding nullifies its existence if Blacks are to be a part of it. For the American Dream to exist, Baldwin suggests from the White perspective, Blacks must be excluded and given little opportunity to achieve it. Blacks can’t be a part because it necessitates exploitation of themselves. Baldwin’s point is that the dream only exists for Whites. Blacks are a part only in so far that they are at the bottom of the power structure, the foundation upon which Whites step up and rise, taking with them all the spoils, all the opportunities.
Sargeant’s Baldwin is wry and not as nuanced, expressive and dramatic as he might have been. On the other hand, Williams’ Buckley is vital, stirring and engaging. Clearly, in the Public Theater production, Buckley won. I found myself dropping out as Sargeant’s portrayal missed important beats. Williams’ sharp edginess and movements kept my interest. Conversely, Price’s Heycock was portrayed with vitality. Stevenson’s Burford was adequate.
Interestingly, after the debate Sargeant’s Baldwin sits with friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines). Their interchange reveals their close friendship. Unfortunately, the scene is too brief and should have delved deeper. At the very end, Sargeant takes off the mantle of Baldwin in his most authentic moment. He acknowledges the company’s own politically incorrect historic racism when ERS cast White actors to play Black roles in their early versions of The Sound and the Fury. To identify a past that we are still trying to become free of, even the most well meaning of us, seems counterproductive, guilty and fearful. I look forward to a time when theater moves beyond this stance which in itself is disingenuous and “protests too much.”
Clearly, at this time it is appropriate that the debate of Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge be re-imagined. We are at a crossroads. This is not 1965. We are not in Cambridge, however, the ideas from our racist past that were entrenched, have been redeemed as useful and justifiable for us in the present. At no other time in history having attained what we thought was racial progress, have we been so duped by the residual racism that existed culturally into believing it was harmless. Its dangers have always been there and liberals have been blind to it despite warnings by Black and Brown critics.
Baldwin knew, he saw. The Black reality and White world were as clear as day. He understood that the White reality was convinced of its craven rightness to oppress and suppress Blacks to achieve White agendas at Black expense. Today, this horrific White reality is most visible in law enforcement abuse of Blacks, in the broken justice system that incarcerates Blacks disproportionately, in the exclusion of Blacks in corporate empires, in every institution that harbors systemic racism.
And the economic oppression is growing worse to include everyone except the .001%. These truths existed sub rosa for decades as the gap between the wealthy and everyone else widened. However, it took an egregious and criminally-minded opportunist in former president Donald Trump to justify and promote a resurgence of open hatreds branding the necessity of racist oppression, and authoritarianism ruling the underclasses, using media PR of lies and obfuscation.
For that final reason, Baldwin & Budkley at Cambridge is an extremely vital production which must be seen. For tickets go to their website: https://publictheater.org/