Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Cross of Redemption

Randall Kenan says in his introduction to his new collection of James Baldwin’s essays “…he was audacious in his love for complex sentences; one might say even fearless in the way he deployed the English language.  Reading a Baldwin sentence can feel like recreating thought itself.”

It's true; and that’s the key to the revelatory nature of his writing and thinking.  If we look to literature to help us open our minds Baldwin’s words reveal that he is taking that journey as well.  In his sentence structure, love of words, and ideas he creates a synergy that enlivens the reader making the engagement an active, not passive one.

That’s what I felt the first time I read Baldwin.  That was before I knew anything of his biography.  And the biography only adds to an understanding of his complexity.

Born into a working poor family in Harlem, Baldwin lived through the Great Depression, the open racism which saw lynching still a sport in the south and the seditious Jim Crow of the north.  Yet his capacity for optimism and believe in human possibility is evidenced in all of his work, even when he portrays the sorrows of loss. Even when others try to dissuade him from his love.

That’s one of the things that makes “Giovanni’s Room” such an amazing novel.  There is no happy, candy coated ending, (spoiler alert) Giovanni goes to the guillotine and his true love remains as faithless as ever. Yet Baldwin’s sense of the power and importance of love remains.  Below is a draft of the monologue which I’m working on for the play for the character, Giovanni who is Jimmy’s muse in the play.

I’ve rewritten it several times after the readings of the play over the past two years and am still honing in on it. Here he rails against those who would suggest Jimmy burn the novel rather than publish it.

Why would he say that! A burned book is…a burned life isn’t it? 
It’s an entire village of lives tossed on a funeral pyre.  And what of the
bitterness that rises in the smoke? Do we breathe that in?
            A book is a holy vessel carrying into the world what we need.
            This is no a medieval story where the villagers race toward us with
            torches blazing with righteousness.  Do they expect my silence as they tie
            me to   the stake and light the funeral pyre?   Who is the monster here?
Some of them are afraid to be revealed…as either loving or not loving
souls.  That’s why they wave their torches at you and scream betrayer.
But revelation is why you write.  The light thrown from their torches can’t
be contained to just one story or another.  All stories are revealed.  If you
find fear and bitterness they stare out from the receding dark.  If you find
love it shines brighter than all fire.  

You can not hide from yourself or from them and hope to ever really see
anything.  If they do not care for who I am, then they certainly don’t care
for who you are.  In truth they do not care for themselves at all. 
And so you must write.

            Before we are words on a page…it is there…our need for each other.
            You ask what should you do with such monumental need? There is only
            one thing: write.

            Without the sound of Luc’s breath on the pillow next to you…you write.
            Against these men who juggle the fires of your destruction as if they are
            in the center ring of a circus… you write.  When the sound of mourning
is so deep the mourners can barely breathe…you write. 

            It is the thing you do to turn torches into lanterns. 
The words wring life from death. 


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Home Sweet...

Homemaking is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about James Baldwin.  Cafés, voluminous cigarette smoke, cocktail parties, literary debates, handsome young men, civil rights passion, yes.  But domestication has not been on the long list of ideas that Baldwin’s name evokes for me. 

After I devoured “The Well of Loneliness” when I was about 14, I discovered “Waiting for Giovanni” and was relieved to know that there were more than just white ‘homosexuals’ in Victorian garb; we could also be a black and from Harlem. It was important (back in the day) to know we came in all colors; although happy endings were still far in the future.  The world of Baldwin seemed to me one of danger, emotional endurance and melancholy; there was not a whiff of home baked cookies. 

But two things added more texture to the picture I had of Baldwin.  “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade” by M.J. Zaboroska, is a very readable exploration of his life and writing between 1961 and1971.  That was, coincidentally, the beginning of my devotion to his work…from my first desperate search for like beings to a mature appreciation of his creative skills and political astuteness.

One of the many wonderful revelations Ms. Zaboroska explores is how the theme of home and homemaking “weighed increasingly on Baldwin throughout his Turkish period.” She also reveals how, in letters over the years, Baldwin discussed his appreciation of the cozy, home qualities of his apartment in Turkey as well as some writing colonies he worked in. 

This view helped me form an idea about the interior life of my main character, Jimmy, and what are some of the needs that drive him.  On the exterior he is erudite, sharp tongued, exquisitely perceptive, all qualities which place him apart from others.  Internally he yearns for the closeness of relationships and homecomings the way that most of us do.

The second thing which helped confirm the direction I was going in was meeting James Baldwin’s “sister-out-law,” Carole. (We say “sister-out-law” since she and JB’s brother, David, never legally married.) This was an amazing experience, partly because Carole is great fun and we could reminisce about the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s as if we’d known each other then. And her life with David and close relationship with JB gave her a unique perspective.  She, David and their son sometimes spent summers with JB in Turkey and France providing some of that ‘home’ JB yearned for. A young, artist herself, living on the vibrant art scene, Carole saw up close the Jimmy that I was creating on the page. 

During our meal together at one point she mentioned JB’s ‘fragility’ and my heart leapt.  That was exactly the quality I’ve been trying to define but I hadn’t gotten to that word yet.  How could I portray a hugely successful intellectual activist from the inside out so the audience can feel the fragile place where he yearns for ‘home?’

The lovers, the books, the cafés were all pointing him in that direction; that place—either physically or emotionally—where he could feel at home with himself and with the world.   

In April “Waiting for Giovanni” will have a reading in Minneapolis at Macalister College where my collaborator, Harry Waters Jr. teaches. Carole, who’ll be in town for a conference, will have a chance to hear if I’ve captured the Jimmy she knew and loved.  Her stories of those times do make his domestic aspect seem more recognizable and make Baldwin feel more familiar.  It is, after all, from that core fragile place of need that all his passion flowed. Which may be true for many of us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Six degrees of Giovanni...

…or the people on my road to writing a play about James Baldwin. 

Sometime in the 1960s my high school in Boston took us on a rare class trip.  Our school was not among the most well endowed…I can count the school trips we made in my four years on one hand.  However, this one was memorable. 

We went downtown to see a professional production of “Miss Reardon Drinks a Little.” I don’t think it was the best play but it was so professional and magical I never forgot the thrill of it.  So when I got to college I signed up for the practical major, sociology, and the heart minor, theatre.

After graduation I left home and moved to New York City thinking I was going to work in journalism but I took a job teaching theatre to youth while I was in grad school. My career as a Barbara Walters replacement receded with each theatre workshop I taught.

Once I completed my journalism degree I joined a new theatre group while I waited for a network news executive to discover me. American Theatre Experiment (whose founder, Richard Gaffield, introduced me to one of the owners of Cornelia Street Café where I later did my first poetry reading—but that’s another blog) became my home where I worked on lots of readings and several productions, one of which was an historic (and impressive) restaging of an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel NATIVE SON. 

There I met a wonderful actor/writer with Irish charm and a grand sense of adventure, Shawn McAllister  He befriended this anxious little colored girl and taught me how to shoot pool and drink whisky.  We talked about theatre and our lives---present and past--- and finally uncovered an odd confluence of things: Shawn knew folks connected to the same production of “Miss Reardon Drinks a Little” that I’d seen years before in Boston.  In that moment of connection I understood the profound bridges between people that theatre can build.  Without theatre Shawn and I probably would never have met, and that meeting confirmed the possibilities that my youthful theatre experience had sparked.

Shawn’s friendship along with others a made at ATE gave me the courage to seek out the Frank Silvera Writers Workshop which read new plays by writers of color every Monday with great actors like Morgan Freeman. It was working as a stage manager for the workshop and for Off and Off Off Broadway productions that I met Harry Waters Jr.

Harry had recently graduated from Princeton and come to New York City at a magical time in theatre.  The high point of the Black Theatre Movement of the 1960s in NYC was fading, but some of the companies and actors were still bright lights in the firmament.

By the mid-1970s the iconic New Lafayette Theatre was dissipating but the Negro Ensemble Company and the National Black Theatre were still producing.  The history of the work each did and the influence on U.S. theatre and film is still to be fully analyzed.  But the lasting effect on me shows up in everything I do.  Whether being in the audience of a New Lafayette Theatre ritual/play in Harlem or stage managing for a new Ed Bullins play in the West Village or helping designer Sandy Ross hang lights at the Negro Ensemble Company or watching Alfre Woodard in her formative stage acting in a little play…it’s all in here and comes out in the writing. 

By the 1980s I was so ready to write I must have been sweating ink, but I was having a difficult time figuring out what to write about.  Who would care about my life?  Little art that I saw or worked on reflected who I was as a raised poor, colored lesbian feminist; so I turned to fiction and was embraced by the women’s presses and magazines.

Soon two other things happened to close the circle on this path (I know: too many metaphors in one blog).  I wandered into the lesbian/feminist theatre on the Lower East Side, WOW Café, where I met Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver. Then I saw Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” (the play not the T. Perry movie!) about 10 times.

From Miss Reardon to that moment I had not understood that I just needed to write from inside myself about anything I wanted.  It would start with me and the women who raised me, my multi-ethnic family, and our neighborhood.  I could use any forms I wanted…poetry, memoir, vampire stories.  Plays.

All of these disparate people, most of whom never met each other, many of whom probably don’t remember me brought me to this moment where Harry and I are taking this journey to explore James Baldwin’s mind.  When I first picked up the copy of “Giovanni’s Room” when I was a teenager in my father’s flat it was a personal revelation …and what isn’t when you’re a teenager.  But I had no reason to believe the novel would turn into such a professional passion. 

In the reading about Baldwin’s life I’ve done to prepare to write this piece, I’ve found so many of the anxieties and uncertainties that I carried inside myself through those years working in NY theatre…who am I, why was my vision valuable, will people care, will people of color hate me?  Insecurity is not the first word that comes to mind when anyone thinks of James Baldwin.  But he was a short, small built, dark-skinned, not traditionally (Western-wise) good looking, gay man in the 1950s and 60s.  Insecurity would be the least of the things anyone in his right mind might be feeling, whatever the persona he projected, whatever his brilliance on the page.

Because Harry and I had worked ‘in the trenches’ as they say, toiling in NYC theatre side by side we reconnected with a sense of trust.  When he asked me to write something about Baldwin…I had no idea it would turn into a journey lasting so long or one so full of love.

Next week we’re casting for the final two parts, including GIOVANNI!  And next month we’re doing another reading of the play in Minneapolis so I’ll get to hear my most recent version of the script.  Wish us luck!  More next Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Waiting 4 Giovanni

As a kid growing up with my great grandmother in Boston in the early 1960s I learned to love reading like most kids learned to jump rope.  And when I visited my father most weekends I loved that reading was as intrinsic to his life as it was to mine.  It was in his flat among a stack of magazines and novels that I first discovered James Baldwin.

I started with "Giovanni's Room" because it was shorter.  I can identify moments when I knew my life stopped in place and turned onto a new path.  That was one of those moments.  Baldwin's writing took my breath away and the story was about the ill-fated love affair between two men in Paris.  In Baldwin's elegant language I understood gay existed outside of my own isolation. 

Decades later and on the other side of the country my friend Harry Waters Jr., actor and director, asked me to write something for him about James Baldwin.  It was as if I'd been waiting for his request, his challenge all of my life.  It was strange since I've spent most of my career writing lesbian/feminist literature in general and lesbian vampire stories in particular.  But I took to Baldwin like the proverbial duck to water.

This blog site will keep you up to date on the progress of this project from Harry's first challenge to the opening night of the play, "Waiting for Giovanni."  I'll relate some of the  disappointments and triumphs, talk about breakthroughs in the research and the writing; and introduce some of the people I meet along the way.

Baldwin said: "Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."  My teen encounter with Baldwin sewed the seeds of a deep love for writing as well as for his work.  That love has helped me challenge those masks over the past 40 years.  

There will be much talk about the 'isms' that have contaminated our loves but mostly this blog is about of James of of theatre.  I hope you'll leave this spot and dash off to re-read JB or some other writer or to buy theatre tickets or partake of some cultural experience.  Who we are as a country is imbedded in our culture and we are that culture.  All of us.  Read on! Right on!