http://www.playbill.com/article/playbill-vaults-today-in-theatre-history-march-11-com-104384 One of the most important American plays that still holds up amazingly well while some of the more famous works of that era feel dated.
Let me just get this out of my system at the top: I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s exemplary documentary on James Baldwin, was robbed at the Oscars. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see the OJ documentary, and now I really don’t want to. I think OJ mania may tell us a lot about our media-saturated culture, James Baldwin’s life, work, and vision speaks to the entirety of American culture, history, and society. Peck brings that vision to the fore and expertly demonstrates how Baldwin’s analysis of American life, which he developed in the Civil Rights Era, still has application in our post-Ferguson time.
Baldwin famously states, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” In a nation that infamously “forgets” its past — how few of my students know when Pearl Harbor occurred — Baldwin is fierce in his argument (rightly) that the history of slavery and Jim Crow still is very much part of our present. This tenant serves as Peck’s thesis.
The film builds upon Baldwin’s notes for a planned but never completed book Remember This House. It rests on a three-legged stool of Baldwin’s friendships with three very different but significant figures: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Another important relationship touched upon is his friendship with Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Peck and Baldwin both are emphasizing the importance and synthesis of culture to politics. Baldwin again cogitates on the line between witness and actor (as in someone engaged in political activity); it is a blurred but fine line. And what emerges is how necessary Baldwin was to our changing perceptions during the 1950’s and 1960’s. As much as it was about bus seats and votes and marches, it was also about where those not white fit into the culture. Speaking of a John Wayne Western, the writer has the epiphany that he was the Indians.
I was struck by a clip from The Dick Caveat Show. Baldwin is joined by a saged academic from Yale University (a philosopher I believe). This professor challenges Baldwin on race, but invoking class! Doesn’t Baldwin have more in common with a white author than a black sharecropper? Firstly, I was amazed that this man would use class prejudice as a way of mitigating racial prejudice. Secondly, he — a learned and educated man — fails to grasp the truth in front of him in 1968: race is class.
Peck masterfully employs a large dose of Baldwin’s cultural criticism — particularly as race has been portrayed in American film — as part of his narrative. Why? Because legislative achievements are one thing, but that history Baldwin speaks of lives on in our attitudes and perceptions. It is present.
Samuel L. Jackson reads a number of Baldwin’s letters and essays. I knew going in that he was doing that, but still, I did not recognize — what is his usually distinct — voice. Jackson’s work adds to the power of the documentary.
I found the film so essential that it has inspired me to create a course exclusively on James Baldwin for my university.
During my recent trip to London, I had the opportunity to see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre (best theatre in the world, in my humble opinion). I had been familiar with Baldwin’s novels and essays but never his work for the stage. So this was an opportunity to dive into what was for me an unknown corner of the Baldwin canon.
Benefitting a show at the National, the production was magnificent. Both the gospel choir and jazz trumpet provided texture as well as counterpoint to the drama enacted on stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Secrets and Lies fame) was a revelation as Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a corner church up in Harlem in the 1950’s. Director Rufus Norris recreated Harlem of that era magnificently.
But what I went for was the play. And did I get a play. Written in 1954 after the author had completed his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, Amen Corner distinguishes itself for the beauty of its language (this is Baldwin after all) and the complexity of emotions that inform that language. There isn’t a Caucasian character on stage and white America is rarely mentioned, but the audience can feel its presence. Those who attend and lead the church are, for the most part, domestics and servants. Church provides for them an escape but also an opportunity, even if one day a week or late at night, to take charge of their destinies. At the center of the drama are four very strong women who to one degree or another must negotiate the city and life on their own. There are no clear heroes or villains here. Even Sister Moore as she tries to undermine Margaret’s authority is often more tolerant of other people’s life choices than her pastor is.
Margaret is faced with a series of crises in the play. Her wayward husband, Luke (a jazz musician), returns home after a number of years. He is the opposite of everything Margaret in her role as pastor stands for. Luke, however, is dying and wishes to spend his final days with his family. Her son, David, does not wish to continue playing piano for the church, but instead wishes to be a jazz musician like his father. And then there is the rebellion led by Sister Boxer and Sister Moore. What unfolds are the myriad reasons — personal, emotional, intellectual, spontaneous, revelatory — that brought Margaret to a life serving God. Baldwin expertly intertwines all of these reasons to create a full-blooded three-dimensional character. If at that end, we still cannot fully embrace Margaret, we have a thorough understanding and respect of her. We know from Baldwin’s biography that he had a difficult time with organized religion, but he has the compassion to compose a thoughtful and well-balanced portrait.
Of course, as I sat in the theatre in London, I could not help but ask myself, “Why isn’t this play being done in America?” This is an important and vital work — more alive and less musty than other plays from this period we venerate — and tells an important story, like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about both the African-American experience and women’s experiences. So, theatre producers, find a way to put this provocative important beautiful play on stage here in the States. It deserves to be seen.
I had the opportunity this afternoon to see The Luck of the Irish by Kristen Greenidge at the Claire Tow Theatre, which houses LCT3 (Lincoln Center’s space for new writers). If the play is a bit wobbly, it is still worth a look. One of the advantages of LCT3 is that tickets are only $20 a piece. At that price, one can feel free to take more of a chance with unknown material. And, as with this play, when there is a great deal to capture the interest but there are flaws present too — well, you can still feel like you’ve come out ahead. And with this work, the audience certainly does come out ahead.
The Luck of the Irish is one of the ever-growing number of plays that are in conversation with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The plot turns on a piece of real estate, and the over-arching question is who has the right to it. Though as more than one character hints at — white or black — we are all visitors to these shores from some place else. Ultimately, I think it is great that A Raisin in the Sun is getting this attention and that many of the themes and issues it addressed are still relevant today. A Raisin in the Sun was starting to become a musty museum piece in our collective theatrical sense, but it shouldn’t the way, say, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has. Lodged within Hansberry’s work about the Younger family trying and achieving the cornerstone of the American Dream (ownership of a house), are questions about African-American identity within the larger framework of American hegemonic society.
But on to Luck of the Irish. The fascinating aspect here is that a down-on-their-heals Irish-American family, the Donovans, has to serve as “ghost buyers” for a wealthy African-American family in 1958. This is the only way that Rex and Lucy Taylor can move into an affluent Boston suburb without getting firebombed, as they had been two years previously in Newton. The dynamic between the Taylors and Donovans is endlessly fascinating. The antagonism between Lucy and Patty Ann Donovan is fueled as much by class as it is by race. There is only one scene in which they are alone — where they meet in a diner — and it crackles. So much resentment, animosity, and condescension informs this moment that in many ways it speaks for this nation’s continued simmering racial divide; the dust up between Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley gains is given significant context.
Lucy and Rex form, to me, one of the most interesting married couples to appear on the American stage. They are NOT the Youngers. The Youngers, while not exactly naive, make the move to their Chicago suburb with a certain amount of idealism intact. The Taylors are under no such illusions. This is their second bite at the apple. As stated above, in their first attempt, they were forced out because of arson. Here, they are clearly manipulating the system — as well as the financial need of the Donovans — to get their house. And this is not some artifact of the American Dream or some representation of equality and what they hope to be a colorblind society in some far off future. Lucy is motivated as much by bourgeois avarice as anything else. And once in her home, she will not leave because her pride will not force her out. She believes she is as above Patty Ann as Patty Ann believes she is above Lucy. This is a wonderful conceit. And the twin roar from these two strong-willed unforgiving women would be enough play in and of itself. Eisa Davis, who plays Lucy, and Amanda Quaid, who plays Patty Ann, could drive this play all by themselves. I like too that the ones to break the glass ceilings and racial barriers are not doing it for a larger sense of duty to a community. They are doing it selfishly for themselves. Others will simply come along and take advantage of their tenacity. Mad Men often plays with similar strategies. Peggy is trying to get ahead for herself, not a sense of sisterhood. In a contemporary scene, the older Patty has an eruption of venom about being passed over that has been infecting her for 50 years. According to her, first come the English, then the Irish, then the Italians, and finally the African-Americans. It is of interest to note that the Taylors bought the house from an Italian family, so Patty Ann has been displaced twice. The America of Greenidge’s work is a Darwinian cesspool of class versus class, and race versus race. That which should unite us is not as strong as what divides us.
The play moves between the 1950’s and the present (or near present). I disagree with Charles Isherwood of The New York TImes here. For me, while the scenes from the 1950’s crackled, the ones from the present fizzled. The stakes and the jeopardy which were so intrinsic to the earlier scenes of the play in an organic way were non-existent in the later scenes. Indeed, the threat to losing the house turned out to be no threat at all and existed seemly to move the plot along. To be honest, the events and various crises of this half often felt contrived.
All and all though, The Luck of the Irish is a worthwhile evening of theatre. The play adds a very interesting perspective on the question of ownership in the African-American community. As such, it is responding as much to Toni Morrison (with The Bluest Eye) as it is Hansberry.