Photo: Joan Marcus.

Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge

Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley, CA

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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“Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge” is a reenactment of the legendary 1965 debate at Cambridge University in London. An exchange of views between two leading American intellectuals, James Baldwin and William F Buckley, Jr.—on the topic, “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” Greig Sargeant, who conceived this stage production along with New York-based theater ensemble—Elevator Repair Services, also takes on the role of author, queer, and civil rights activist James Baldwin. Playing the role of political commentator and American Conservative William F Buckley, Jr., who believed that Whites are the advanced race, is the much sought-after actor of film and stage, Scott Shepherd.
 
This historical debate on race, which still captivates today, is largely documented. It is featured in numerous clips on YouTube and has been widely written about, including, as recently as Nicholas Buccola’s 2019 book, “The Fire Is Upon Us.” Its relevance, along with any excuse to listen to
Baldwin’s poetic phrasing of speech and provocative intelligence are good motives for bringing this exchange to the stage. Along with the opportunity to see Scott Shepherd in person on the heels of his successful roles in “Killer of The Flower Moon” and “The Last of Us”? Shepherd delivers a relatively animated performance compared to Sargeant’s mostly static delivery confined to his debate chair.
 
The staging is as predictable, with two tables facing each other as two opposing views face off. What’s missing is the verve of Cambridge students surrounding and nearly suffocating the two speakers as they did inside the Debate Union, clapping, laughing, questioning, and giving Baldwin a resounding standing ovation at the end of his speech. This student participation was central to this historical moment. It greatly enlivened this event, shaping it beyond the points debated, unlike the primarily elderly Zellerbach audience, sitting at a distance or on both sides of the stage passively taking in this parley. 
 
When the debate is over, and Baldwin resoundingly wins, receiving 380 votes above Buckley—a scrim goes up behind where Sargeant has been sitting. We see a Black woman on a couch with a cocktail and cigarette. It’s unclear who or why the woman appeared, especially following the debate where everyone was formally introduced, and their purpose was clear. Only from the program notes do we learn that this woman is acclaimed writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines) —the first African American to have a play on Broadway (Raisin in The Sun.) A playful but meager banter takes place between the two, with long pauses in between as Baldwin remains stuck to his chair. The only actions are a drink poured and a cigarette lit, as Hansberry proclaims how Negroes have exhausted every method of communication and that the demand to be more patient is “simply unbearable.’
 
This scene, created from letters between Baldwin and Hansberry, is only minutes long and never establishes why it’s the final act, adding nothing to or concluding nothing from the first act. What is their relationship other than casual? Nothing personal is revealed, least of all their shared queerness, only their shared political interests, which are already known. If they were close—something few viewers will know unless a grand assumption is made about the audience—it is not given to us as everything else has been until now. We are expected to leap.
 
Hansberry died at 35 when Baldwin was 41, less than a month before the parley—more subtest not provided in the play. Are we then expected to assume that Baldwin was perhaps still grieving his loss at the time of the debate? That would at least tie the two disparate sections together and provide this scene with the emotional resonance it lacks. Instead, when the lights come up, Sargeant awkwardly says to the audience, “That’s it. That’s the end.” As if to say, “That’s all I’ve got for you. And I’ll tell you it’s over because I know you’ll be confused otherwise.” Ending this timely play in this amateurish fashion only points to the writing, John Collins’ direction, and perhaps Alec C Edwards’ lighting design.
 
“We are sitting in this room, and we are all, at least I’d like to think we are, relatively civilized, and we can talk to each other at least on certain levels so that we could walk out of here assuming that the measure of our enlightenment, or at least, our politeness, has some effect on the world. It may not.” James Baldwin, Cambridge

David e. Moreno

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