Wednesday, April 13, 2011
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
When James Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner,” opened in 1965 its neighbors on Broadway represented the spectrum of dramaturgy: from “Danton’s Death” to “The Zulu and the Zayda” with Maurice Chevalier somewhere in the middle. Coming as it did from the pen of one of the major African American political essayists in the U.S. “The Amen Corner,” must have been kind of a surprise because the story’s central theme was not the internal workings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott or development of the sit in as strategy but rather the personal struggles of a woman preacher and her family. It felt almost like soap opera to some critics.
But soap is how the world turns! In many ways it is in the theatre that Baldwin most reflects his dramatic interior life that is kept at bay in his more intellectual essays and in his novels. Both “The Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” (1964) dig into the frayed emotional lives of the characters and the ‘movement’ is the context not the total content.
Baldwin’s approach presages Robin Morgan’s feminist credo: ‘the personal is political.’ Baldwin understood that “Freedom is personal… [it is]…a complex, difficult—and private—thing .” It is in his drama that Baldwin reveals a variety of personal vulnerabilities that might remain cloaked by his intellectual acuity in his books of essays.
“The Amen Corner” is, at its heart, an exposition of Baldwin’s personal struggle with religion and his family, especially his (step) father David. “Blues for Mister Charlie” is the cri de coeur of a man who’s spirit lives despite the brutal murders around him.
Baldwin’s other (and more obscure) play “Giovanni’s Room,” (WHOSE SCRIPT I’M SEARCHING DESPARATELY FOR!!!) is based on his novel. And despite it being set in Paris and its characters being white, not black, perhaps, it is the most personal of them all. The parallels between the novel’s progress and that of Baldwin’s emotional relationship with lovers in general and with the younger Swiss painter, Lucien Happersberger are both tenuous and obvious. Even though the novel predates their break up by several years I think it illuminates the kind of rejection Baldwin lived with all of his life and had come to anticipate. Certainly Lucien’s ambivalence about his sexuality didn’t inspire confidence in Baldwin. But evidence of the depth of Baldwin’s love for Lucien lies in the fact that he maintained a profound relationship with him despite his desertion of Baldwin to marry not just anyone—but Diana Sands, the star of Baldwin’s play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.”
The dramatic conclusion of the novel and the play—the death of Giovanni—does not neatly represent the more mundane resolution of Baldwin’s heartbreak—the two remained close friends as only queer people can do. The ending can, however, be read as a powerful evocation of the emotional turmoil through which Baldwin lived when, like his character Giovanni, he is abandoned by his lover and by the Black writers he admired.
It was with the publication of “Giovanni’s Room,” despite warnings that the homosexual nature of the central relationship would ruin his career that Baldwin finally comes fully into himself as an adult, African American man. The ghosts of religion, of his father (as represented by the many Black militants who disparaged him) and his own reservations are vanquished. It is this wholeness that might have aided him in living through the enormity of his heartbreak(s). Baldwin worked for many years on the theatrical adaptation of the book. The workshop production at the famed Actors Studio in New York in 1965 as well as another in Turkey did not result in the Broadway production Baldwin had hoped for. It did, however stand as a testament to the deeply emotional life that Baldwin lead and how insistent he was that the personal journey he made as a lover of men not disappear under his reputation as a writer of and about the Civil Rights Movement.
Having spoken out loud, Baldwin insures that his passion for life live on—both on the page and on the stage.