Off-Broadway Review: BALDWIN & BUCKLEY AT CAMBRIDGE (Elevator Repair Service at The Public)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on October 7, 2022

in Theater-New York


In 1965, at the Cambridge Union, Cambridge University, England, eminent social critic and author James Baldwin publicly debated leading American conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. The motion of their debate: “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro”. In front of an almost all-white student and faculty audience of over seven hundred people, two British undergrads at Cambridge — David Heycock and Jeremy Burford, first respectively stated the pro and con positions. Then Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Buckley debated the motion. This stunning conversation is available to be viewed on YouTube. Besides being a permanent visual record of the excellent oratory and rhetorical skills both men possessed, it’s sobering to realize how much of their conversation still remains relevant to the United States in 2022.

 Christopher-Rashee StevensonGavin Price

I imagine it’s the current resonance of this debate that encouraged Elevator Repair Service to attempt to work its usual magic by staging the transcript of this important moment in the Civil Rights movement. Though very well-intentioned, this current staging titled Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge, conceived by Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service and directed by John Collins is not as compelling, fiery or dramatic as the original debate. There are some changes and updates that don’t really align with the transcript and tend to confuse matters. While there are good performances all around, and some of the inequalities referenced still hit hard, one has to wonder why this production was done when the original is still easily accessible and much more compelling?

Greig Sargeant

The voice of an announcer from the original British television recording is used throughout to help give context and this device mostly works. However in this stage version, Mr. Heycock (a earnest Matthew Russell) and Mr. Burford (an energetic Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) are both played as American. So it’s a bit confusing as to why their nationality and perspective (originally arguing as outside observers now changed to inside participants) has changed. Also Mr. Burford, who argues the con side of the motion and speaks in direct opposition to Mr. Baldwin’s perspective, is played by an African-American actor. This was probably done to demonstrate current black conservatives such as Candace Owens, Christian Walker or Katrina Pierson. But are we to believe that James Baldwin would be in a white, male space with a young black man espousing those views and not address that dichotomy? Perhaps the idea is that the debate is happening today, in front of the actual audience in the theater. But the text is specifically 1965 so the current audience reaction is not really taken in by the “debaters” on stage, at least in the transcript text. Mr. Rashee-Stevenson does project that he’s arguing the con position more as a matter of debate protocol than personal belief. However, it is still an odd fit since this happens directly in front of James Baldwin.

Ben Jalosa Williams
Greig Sargeant

As James Baldwin, Mr. Sargeant does an admirable job inhabiting Mr. Baldwin’s essence, along with some of his speech patterns and mannerisms. However, his Baldwin lacks the rhetorical command of the actual Baldwin. Mr. Sargeant will sometimes slip into emotion, losing site of Baldwin’s focused logic, which weakens his presence. As William F. Buckley Jr.,  Ben Jalosa Williams shines and is appropriately condescending, arrogant and maddening. There were more than a few groans in the audience in response to some of his more blatantly racist statements.

Greig Sargeant and Ben Jalosa Williams

After the debate has finished (Baldwin won 544-164) ERS has added an additional, fictional scene between James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry (an affecting Daphne Gaines). It’s not clear where the scene takes place but the lovely, minimalist set by DOTS suggests a small apartment. This scene, constructed from direct quotes by both Baldwin and Hansberry, seems to voice their frustration about the struggles of the movement, in particular their dealings with well-meaning, white liberals. There is an unexpected, meta-moment mid-scene when the actors suddenly talk about their personal experiences making theater in similarly frustrating circumstances. Then suddenly they are back in character and finish the scene. It’s all well-acted and interesting but, again, confusing. Particularly since the scene ends with this quote from Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is, we have to find some way, with these dialogues, to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” This is taken from Hansberry speaking at a Town Hall meeting titled, “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash” in June 1964 in New York City. She was criticizing negative judgment from white liberals against black activists who turned to civil disobedience as a means to effect change once all other avenues had failed. In that context, Hansberry’s line makes perfect sense. Without that framing however, it sounds like Hansberry is saying it’s up to the oppressed to help change the oppressor — an idea that has presumably been proven false after the many worldwide conversations and reckonings following the murder of George Floyd.

Daphne Gaines

Elevator Repair Service generally does excellent work and their top-notch theater craft is on display in Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge. Though, surprisingly, the end results are mixed. If one wants to feel a closer degree of separation from this famous debate, check out this production. But to witness the full impact of this exchange, not to mention the mesmerizing oratory of both Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Buckley Jr., watch it on YouTube. As Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell once sang to each other, also back in The Sixties, “…ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.”

photos by Joan Marcus

Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge
Elevator Repair Service
The Public’s Anspacher Theater
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
ends on October 16, 2022 EXTENDED to October 23, 2022
Tues-Sun at 8; Sat & Sun at 2
for tickets, call 212.967.7555 or visit The Public

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