Improbable as it might sound, my greatest fear in writing about Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge is that I’ll spoil it. It’s a strange worry, considering this latest offering from the esteemed performance-art collective Elevator Repair Service (ERS), presented as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, dramatizes a decades-old historic event that can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. What new ground is there to cover by reaching back to 1965, when James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. decamped to England to debate race relations in America?
The subject that framed their discourse still vibrates with a sad sense of immediacy amid the racist violence that became especially visible worldwide in 2020, a year in which Black citizens once again had to stand up and demand their humanity. The question at the center of the event hosted by the Cambridge Union—“Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”—has overtones in the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin spoke of generational trauma and systemic oppression with pointed cogency 56 years ago, and those concepts have only gained in understanding since.
No museum piece
ERS avoids presenting this artifact of a different yet uncomfortably familiar era as a museum piece. The majority of the brief work functions within the confines of verbatim theater, as Greig Sargeant (who also conceived the piece) and Ben Jalosa Williams recite the transcript of Baldwin and Buckley’s arguments, asides, and attempts to ingratiate themselves with the audience. The auditorium at FringeArts has been reconfigured as a three-quarter thrust, allowing audience members on either side of the stage area to stand in as the students who flanked the men during their original confrontation.
Under the steady direction of John Collins, neither Sargeant nor Williams mimics. Where Baldwin was a wiry, animated presence, punctuating his rhetorical flourishes with changes in vocal tempo or frenetic gestures, Sargeant maintains a calm equilibrium throughout. His voice betrays little emotion as he delivers Baldwin’s crystalline arguments with surgical precision. In contrast, Williams largely eschews Buckley’s languid, patrician manner of speaking for a more forceful, charismatic style of delivery. Costumed by Jessica Jahn in a crisp navy suit, he could easily pass for a Fox News contributor or keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Committee.
These choices draw a straight line from then to now. Presenting Buckley not as an oddity of the past but as the paterfamilias of contemporary conservative ideology stops cold any attempt to distance ourselves from his toxic points of view. They are very much still part of the conversation—sometimes nakedly so. When Williams does deliberately slip into Buckley’s stilted, preening cadence, he invites the liberal audience to hiss and tut—and, hopefully, to examine the ways in which our thinking, whether consciously or not, might intersect with his hateful speech.
Baldwin and Hansberry
The work culminates with an imagined scene between Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer a few weeks before the debate took place. Baldwin and Hansberry were queer Black artists at a time when their very identities put them at odds even with their supposed allies, a fact that Sargeant and April Matthis, another ERS veteran, underline through their easy rapport and knowing shorthand. Yet the full power of the scene transcends the opportunity to witness Baldwin in an unguarded moment. I won’t reveal why here, but it puts the entire work into sharp focus.
The Fringe run of Baldwin and Buckley is regrettably brief—there are only two more performances through this weekend—but ERS productions tend to travel and reappear with some frequency. See this exhilarating and challenging work wherever you can.
What, When, Where
Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge. By Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins. Elevator Repair Service. Presented as part of the Curated 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. $39. Through September 11, 2021, at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination, with ID, is required to attend. Masks must be worn for the duration of the performance. Seating is not socially distanced.
FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Additional information about accessibility services can be found on their website.