Monday, January 14, 2013

W4G At New York Theatre Workshop

This year, 2013, is the 60th anniversary of the publication of James Baldwin’s first novel, “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”  Semi-autobiographical, it is a searing document that lays bare the souls of Black folks who have committed themselves to the Christian church yet live hypocritical lies.  In 1953 such a novel from an African American author was unheard of…actually almost any novel from an African American author was unheard of! 
There was the legendary Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha” which remains underappreciated. Ann Petry, known for her earlier novel “The Street,” also published “The Narrows” in the same year.  Surely there are others that don’t immediately come to mind.  But the Baldwin book opened up a new world of thinking about Black literature in part because of its frankness about the complex (not completely positive) spirituality of the African American community.  Another reason is because of the novel’s subtext of homosexual attraction the main character, John, has for his friend Elisha. 

Near the end of the novel they have a Pinteresque conversation about sin and salvation in which John asks: “That song they sing…if it costs my life—is that the price?”
Elisha answers, “Yes…” and in a single word he pulls the rug out from beneath John’s affection.  The song is one of faith and faithlessness and one John must decide if he will sing or turn away from.

In many ways that moment is similar to many in Baldwin’s life…moments where he must face the need to be true to himself or turn away.  His novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” represents that same struggle.  One man, underprivileged and despised clings to love, while his privileged lover rejects their relationship and walks away from his lover’s death. 
In Baldwin’s civil rights activism he repeatedly confronted his belief not just in the righteousness of the cause but also a belief that humanity as a whole could be better than it was.  It was a humanitarianism that didn’t quite fit with the times.  But Baldwin was not a bitter man which comes through in John’s final words of self-assertion: “I’m ready…I’m coming…I’m on my way.” It’s there even in the tragic ending of Giovanni’s room.

Recently New York Theatre Workshop did a reading of “Waiting for Giovanni” and as I watched the rehearsal, then the public reading I was vividly reminded of that hopeful quality Baldwin’s writing has, even when he’s angry.  The actors who participated each had an openness they brought to the material, even though they were squeezing the reading in between other professional commitments, including one actor who was performing in Broadway’s “Book of Mormon.” The director, Patricia McGregor, who’d been a part of the magnificent production of “Fela,” also brought that quality as she swept the actors up in her enthusiasm and curiosity.
It was encouraging to feel that kind of elemental openness to inspiration in the young actors.  I haven’t worked in theatre in New York for more than 25 years and that was one of the things that fed me (since the salaries certainly didn’t).  This openness often there in actors, I guess, but NYC is a hard place to keep it going.  I admired the way they dug into the words, asked questions and embraced the idea of love being important to life.

I'm returning to the script to incorporate some of the ideas they came through the expertly moderated post-reading discussion.  The focus and intent of the theatre staff made the comments shart and constructive, so I have a lot to work with now that I've recovered from the holidaze!

“Waiting for Giovanni” like “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is about how crucial faith is: faith in humanity and faith in love.  Spiritual quests have little soil in which to take root if those other faiths are not respected and practiced.