'Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge' in Berkeley

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 27, 2024
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April Matthis and Greig Sargeant in 'Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge'<br>(photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage)
April Matthis and Greig Sargeant in 'Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge'
(photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage)

"I have a lot in common with James Baldwin," says Greig Sargeant. "I'm a Black man. I'm gay. I go to France to escape the racism of the United States every single year."

Five times this weekend, Sargeant will urgently speak words originally spoken with similar urgency by Baldwin nearly a half century ago.

He portrays the author and activist in "Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge," a work he conceived and will perform as part of the Cal Performances series in Berkeley.

In 1965, author-activist Baldwin and conservative gadfly William F. Buckley participated in a formal debate over the motion, "The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro" at the student union of the esteemed British university, (A BBC video recording of the original event is available on YouTube).

A word-for-word representation of that event forms the bulk of the production by Elevator Repair Service, which specializes in innovative staging of pre-existing literary and found texts.

Greig Sargeant in 'Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge' (photo: Joan Marcus)  

Text and context
The company's last Bay Area engagement, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2020, was for "Gatz," a tour-de-force six-hour rendition of "The Great Gatsby," which I described in these pages as "less an adaptation than a complication."

Like that show, this one revels in the wrinkling of time and space. The debate is presented not as an historical artifact, but as a present-day event. The stakes are higher and less intellectually precious than in "Gatz," though, because both the dramatis personae and the drama itself are nonfictional.

Audiences will be provoked to consider whether the orators' arguments feel dated or of-the-moment, and how the transposition of the debate from the U.K. to the U.S. alters its energy.

To further complicate matters —which is Elevator Repair Service's dizzyingly multivalent modus operandi— Greig Sargeant suggested in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter that he is not exactly acting in "Baldwin and Buckley."

"Long before I worked on this piece, Baldwin's words have given my life meaning and a voice. So, every single part of me is integrated into this.

"I'm speaking to people and I'm delivering a message hoping that it will invoke some sort of conversation about what we should do as a society in the future," he added. "So, yes, it is billed as a performance but it's not really a performance."

In the same interview session, John Collins, the founder and Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service, said, "We want Baldwin and Buckley to exist through their words. Greig can exist through his body. It's just a weird sort of liminal space we're trying to slide into.

"We're triangulating the identities of Greig Sargeant and James Baldwin and the words themselves. I enjoy these things being in tension with each other. That tension creates a kind of vitality."

Greig Sargeant in 'Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge' (photo: Joan Marcus)  

Words first
As part of their effort to train audience attention on the words spoken by the debaters, Collins and Sargeant have opted to tamp down some of the more performative elements of William F. Buckley's public persona.

Playing the founder of The National Review, Scott Shepherd holds back a bit on Buckley's languorous, condescending drawl, letting his ideas be heard more than his vocal mannerisms, which could easily support his being perceived as a buffoon by today's audiences.

"The actor who played Buckley when we first did this piece, did an absolutely brilliant impression of him," said Collins. "Buckley was something of a character and the performance was very funny. But Greig and I realized that might make things a little too easy for our audience, because it makes it simpler to dismiss him as a sort of a joke.

"We want audiences to listen seriously to the arguments he makes," he continued, "because he was making them seriously, and it's important to hear where these ideas are coming from. We want you to come down on the side of Baldwin, but we want him to have a good intellectual challenge and to rise to it. Which he does. The Cambridge students vote Baldwin the winner of the debate."

Sargeant and Collins concede that there's an element of preaching to the converted when presenting "Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge."

"The people who consume this kind of culture," acknowledged Collins, "tend to be more liberal. It can feel frustrating, like the Venn diagram is just a big circle. I sometimes wish we could reach a greater diversity of people."

That said, the production concludes with a coda to the debate that Sargeant has crafted. It's a dialogue scene between Baldwin and his friend, Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines), who challenges Baldwin to think carefully about the validation he receives from white liberals.

"Hopefully," said Collins, "The show will teach something valuable to some of the people who assume they're already the converted."

"Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge," March 1, 8pm; March 2, 2pm & 8pm; March 3, 2pm & 7pm. $82. Zellerbach Playhouse, 2413 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-9988. www.calperformances.org

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