Theater: “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge”@ the Public Theatre
Are Black men and women doomed in our white-majority society? Or does America represent their best hope for social mobility?
These questions do not seem out of place in 2022. Yet they were raised in 1965, during a debate in the UK between James Baldwin and conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr.
This historic meeting is the subject of “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge,” a one-hour play conceived by Greig Sargent and the Elevator Repair Service and presented by the Public Theater. The topic, “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” is debated Cambridge-style, first by a Mr. Heycock (Gavin Price) who takes the “pro” position, and later by a Mr. Buford, a “con” debater (Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) before the action switches to Baldwin and Buckley proper.
In his speech, Baldwin despairs of Blacks ever achieving the American dream. He basically advocates scrapping the whole system and starting over. Buckley, on the other hand, counters by claiming Blacks had already achieved a level of success in America that far exceeded what their counterparts in other countries had achieved. He is caught off-guard, however, when an audience member asks why so few blacks were allowed to vote in the South (this took place in 1965, remember?)
The twist in this production is the casting. The “pro” or Baldwin side is played by Price who is white as well as Sargent who is Black, whereas the Buckley or “con” side is represented by Stevenson who is Black and the excellent Ben Jalosa Williams who is white.
This is heavy stuff, indeed. But it’s lightened somewhat in the last scene of the play, in which Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Stephanie Weeks) discuss the topic of race in a less formal setting. The in-person get-together (which never actually happened) was developed from the correspondence between Baldwin and Hansberry who were personal friends. Best line is Hansberry’s: “You know what white liberals need to do? Be more radical.” AOC, are you listening?
Neither the Public nor Elevator Repair Service has ever pulled its punches, as theatergoers who saw ERS’s productions of “The Sound and the Fury” and “Gaz” know. Here once again they provide food for thought. For while “Baldwin and Buckley” as a play is a bit static, the topic they are addressing is decidedly not.