Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Original Baldwin Brothers

Jonathan Dewberry (Jimmy) & Jordan J. Adams (David)

When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s I was quite near the club where David Baldwin worked.  Being a James Baldwin fan I, of course, had to frequent the bar to catch a glimpse of the brother of my iconic hero.  And I thought if I were lucky maybe even JB himself would stop in. (Never happened for me!)  But David was always charming even though he probably recognize me of one of the JB groupies.  It was gratifying to think of him and JB growing up together.

Years later, working on "Waiting for Giovanni" I really enjoyed writing about a relationship I imagined between the brothers (based somewhat on research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture  It was satisfying to write about two African American men, raised in tight economic circumstances in 1930s Harlem, and living under the erratic reign of a difficult father making a haven within each other.  The smile that David had for his friends and customers was inside my head as I wrote every line.  

In this production Jonathan Dewberry as Jimmy is joined by Jordan J. Adams as his brother, David.  Jordan is nimble with a solid resonance on stage.  And he's able to deliver that million dollar smile just as I remember David's from back in the day!  In this scene Jimmy, as a child preacher, prepares a sermon under the shadow of his father's disapproval.  His younger brother, David, is his reality check here and just as he is later in life when they are adults.

ACT I  Scene 1

Jimmy (as a boy) is seated at the typewriter then on the stoop; it is 1938. Using a pencil he pulls from behind his ear Jimmy works on his sermon. Rehearsing it in his head before reading/preaching out loud, he begins at a hesitant, halting pace making notes, disturbed by the shadow of the Father; then he builds to fullness and confidence. When David enters he wears a big apple/newsboy cap and knickers.

In the beginning was the word. It says right there, brothers and sisters:  
             in the beginning was the word.  The word was with God.  And how do we
make a word? 

                                           FATHERS VOICE
      (in shadow, Bible in hand)
You have to be accountable for your words and your deeds!

And how do we make a word?  We take in a breath and as we
speak the breath shapes a sound. What then is the word, my brothers
and sisters, but the breath of life? 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   FATHERS VOICE
We cant make a life here!

                                             (trying to ignore the voice)
A breath of life so deep and soso……something (makes note
w/pencil and moves away from the typewriter)it sweeps us up.
It sweeps us up into the air toward the righteousness that is God.
It is with our very breath that we speak Gods word. Think! 
Think about that breath of God that keeps us all alive. 

              Anger and fear choke out our breath every day!                                                                                                                                                                                     
Can we imagine Gods merciful word without that breath?  I say no! We
cannot.  Ummmm(picking up pace getting the spirit)....the word made holy...

                                                   FATHER'S VOICE
You are an unholy thing! Black noise of Lucifer!

...the word that must be spoken as long as we draw
breath, brothers and sisters.

(interrupts laughing)
Its a heap more than just one word with you, Jimmy.

Come on David, I need to get this right for Sunday.

You already know what you doin'.  Come on go down the corner
with me and the fellas.  I got a cigarette.

             You know Daddy dont want us hanging out on Lenox Avenue.

He dont want you going downtown to them plays and all that theatre
damnation either.

Thats not the same thing.

Jimmy, I keep tellin you: dont pay no attention to him.

I just want to get this right, David.

You got to cut our daddy loose.  What goes on his head

Theres nothing wrong with his head!

Im only saying his head and your head is two different things.(silence)
You cant do nothing to suit him so why dont you just drop this
Look around you, Jimmy, look at the stoops.

I see them. 

You know your stuff, Jimmy.  But Daddyhe dont see nothin’…not God,
not the folks sitting out fanning they selves, not you either.


Aint you never gonna see past his shadow.  Daddy jus a man!

Youre the one with too many words. 

If you cant take people into account, them words are all crazy.

Why is madness all of a sudden the main attraction on this stoop?


That type of language is unattractive in a young man

You got to let go of this thing with Daddy, sometime, you know?
David, werent you on your way somewhere?

Thats what Im saying: where you going with all these words?

My realm is the spiritual world.

We black, Jimmy.  It is all the spiritual world. 


See you July 12-August 4  

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jimmy's in the House!

Jonathan Dewberry

The cast of Waiting for Giovanni is ensconced in rehearsal space at the legendary National Black Theatre in Harlem. and from report backs they're having a good time.  With only four weeks to capture the words and spirit of a play they have to be working extremely intensely so I'm always sending good vibes. 

Jonathan Dewberry has stepped into the role of Jimmy--his honey voice and intense gaze promise to hold the audience in thrall.  Here's a short excerpt from one of the scenes he's preparing.  The question of what to do about his new book, which he worries will ruin his career, haunts him throughout the play.

Once a boy said to me:  You talk like a book.  I wondered
which book he meant.  Clearly hed never read anything Id written.
This bookI cant embrace it fully.  Yet where do I put these pages once

Someones judgment has always hung like Damocles sword above
my neck. My fathercritics.  Now the others join in, a chorus of shadows.
Lorraine enters and stands upstage of Jimmy.

I dont remember ever feeling like my words were a boning knife.
Still thats the image that comes to mind when I think of what they will say
about this new book. Heretical! Pornographic! Treasonous! 
They will remove my bones so I fit into a box theyve constructed. 
I can see myself, neatly aligned like a sardine in a roll top tin.

LORRAINE upstage, laughs heartily.  

In this scene Jimmy begins to face the rumour that the literary and political world are dissing his new book because of the sexuality of the main characters.  As someone  who saw Jimmy as a fierce author and thoughtful activist for Civil Rights it was hard (at first) for me to imagine him as full of doubt or anxiety.  But Jimmy's uncertainty became more real for me when I  reflected on what I and any of us go through as we try to do something new or deeply personal.

Sometimes we do things that will forever change how we're perceived or how we will present ourselves in the world.  I'm not sure if it's better to recognize that life changing moment at the time or not; but it's a sign of bravery to recognize it and still go forward.  

Jonathan Dewberry captures both the anxiety and the bravery of his character; reminding me we have to go forward no matter how afraid we feel.

See you there July 12th!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Before I go forward and talk about the NEW cast of  the TOSOS  ( production of Waiting for Giovanni I want to praise the cast of the previous production.

I'm especially grateful because they lived through the edits that Harry Waters Jr. and I were making as we went along.  I swear I never added a page of dialogue the day before a performance!  However it wasn't that easy for the cast as I shaped and re-shaped the story, the sequence of scenes and relationships over the course of the rehearsal period.  I've learned quite a bit since then, and already did my rewrites after the New Conservatory Theatre Center ( production and then more just before the new cast started rehearsal.  And I'm keeping my editing pen to myself!

Pictured above: Lonnie Haley, Desiree Rogers, Christopher Nelson, Liam Hughes and Wm. Hunter (in their arms) along with Fred Pitts, William Giammona, and James Martin. They all worked through my words with kindness and professionalism adding their spirit along the way which helped me through some of the places where my writing faltered.  They were a World Championship Team!

And that doesn't mean we had no conflicts or difficult moments.  But the true test of a team is being able to work through those and go on to create the best work you can.  And they did that. The team also included, of course, all the of the production artists and administrators at NCTC as well as Thomas Simpson of AfroSolo Theatre Company ( who was an associate producer of the project.

I'd especially like to acknowledge Wm. Hunter who played Jimmy and has since passed away.  We have many stories to share about William but we'll keep them for our reunion.  But one thing I'm especially proud of is that William had been told he looked and sounded like James Baldwin most of his tough life; and it wasn't always a compliment! With the NCTC production we were able to fulfill one of the greatest dreams of William's life: to play the heroic role of Baldwin.

Next time I'll have pix of the new cast and tell them how lucky they are that I'm staying on the other side of the continent as they shape their roles!  Having seen each of them in the auditions I have such excitement I'm proud of my restraint.  By the time I get to NYC they will be comfortably settled into their parts and I know I'll have the good fortune of seeing my words in a completely new light.

Friday, June 8, 2018

"I know that what I'm asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible." 
James Baldwin

I'm reposting this quote from an earlier blog as it becomes more apparent each day that this country (and perhaps the world) is in  the grips of madness.  I say this after listening to newscasts this morning about children being separated from their parents who are seeking asylum in this country.  Small children from 'darker' countries being ripped out of their parents arms and deposited in 'facilities' in Chicago for months for no reason other than the so-called DOJ wants to discourage brown people from emigrating to the US.

I am on the verge of a rant so won't go on because this is stuff we already know.  It's hard to imagine what Jimmy would have made of this kind of bahaviour from leadership in Washington.  Actually not impossible to imagine.  In 1963, when the Black Civil Rights Movement was at its fragile height Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and other 'celebrities' went to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington to talk about where the administration was going to proceed on the treatment of African Americans.

I don't want to deify RFK, he did some pretty terrible things as did most of the Kennedy family. (I'm a Bostonian so feel slightly disloyal even now saying that)   But compared to our current Attorney General he looks like a cross between  (fill in some saints!).  As we commemorate the 50th anniversary RFK's assassination and (this is the sad part) the abrupt cutting off of his evolution as a political thinker it's valuable to remember the reasons that the 1960s exuded a sense of possibility.  Many activists of all stripes and positions worked together and didn't imagine failure. RFK was on the road from being simply brother of the president to emerging as an actual activist for human rights.

Despite the despicable nature of the current administration in Washington, the cowardice of the elected officials who stand by and watch our government institutions be dismantled and the dangerous fears of those who support them (say what you want: I love the term 'basket of deplorables')  we have to believe as Baldwin did--we can achieve the impossible.  

If I didn't believe we can achieve the impossible I wouldn't be able to write everyday; then ask others to support that writing by performing and by producing and buying tickets.  Each step is toward achieving the impossible.

See you at the theatre in July