Like many people, I’m only now returning to in-person shows after 18 months finding other means of distraction. In a typical example, I went down a YouTube rabbit hole sometime last year, following a Paul Simon discussion about his songwriting process into a series of outmodedly intellectual Dick Cavett interviews until I got to an appearance by James Baldwin, then veering through a bunch of other videos of Baldwin. One of these was a 1965 debate at Cambridge University student union between him and William F Buckley (founder of conservative magazine the National Review) on the proposition “the American dream has come at the expense of the American negro”).
Elevator Repair Services’ new play BALDWIN AND BUCKLEY AT CAMBRIDGE, which ran last weekend at FringeArts as part of their 2021 Fringe Festival, uses that debate as it’s script, with minor dramatical flourishes. You can check out the original video on YouTube, but this is a much more poignant and affecting way to experience the sparring between two intellectual heavyweights. It and feels visceral and immediate and contemporarily relevant in a way watching the black-and-white video on the internet does not.
The Philly Fringe previously saw ERS’s similarly compelling seven-hour show Gatz (2007), a word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby, and The Select (2010), an edited staging of The Sun Also Rises. You could of course, and should, reread these novels, but it’s a testament to live, in-person theater that the artform can imbue widely available texts with such unusual and distinctive power.
As Greig Sargeant (who conceived ESR’s new piece) channels Baldwin’s tone and cadence without ever drifting into mimicry, the writer’s forceful discussion about the personal toll and generational trauma of racism comes across as thoroughly contemporary rather a document from the dying days of segregation. Ben Jalosa Williams mostly eschews Buckley’s distinctive midcentury accent, giving his well-worded and well-argued but hateful speech the feel of a modern-day Fox commentator, if one gained 50 IQ points and a vocabulary.
Departing from the verbatim script, the play concludes with an imagined conversation between Baldwin and fellow black writer Lorraine Hansberry (April Matthis) that drifts into a meta consideration of ERS’s casting practices. It’s a dramatical left turn, yet a fitting coda for a play that transforms an historical record into a living experience.
[FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd] September 9-11, 2021; fringearts.com/event/baldwin-and-buckley-at-cambridge