On Feb. 18, 1965, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. The resolution: “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin, unsurprisingly, spoke for the affirmative. Buckley, who agreed to appear after several other American conservatives had refused, opposed him.
Elevator Repair Service, the experimental theater company, revives this discussion — every word of it and a few more — in “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge,” directed by John Collins at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Greig Sargeant, a longtime company member who conceived the piece, stars as Baldwin. Ben Jalosa Williams, another veteran, plays Buckley. The set for this Cambridge University institution is minimal — two tables, two chairs, two tabletop lecterns. Sargeant and Williams don’t imitate the real men’s accents and cadences, the better to bring the debate closer, showing how germane its arguments remain, with Baldwin insisting that America has been built on the forced labor of its Black inhabitants and Buckley countering that if Black Americans would only put in the effort, they too could enjoy of its fruited plains. House lights stay on through most of the show, implicating the audience.
“Baldwin and Buckley” overlaps with a couple of past E.R.S. shows. Williams has played Buckley at least once before, in the company’s “No Great Society,” which staged an episode of “The Steve Allen Show,” in which Jack Kerouac confronted establishment types. “Arguendo,” which opened at the Public in 2013, presented oral arguments from a Supreme Court case in which exotic dancers advocated for the right to perform nude. E.R.S. often works from texts — novels, verbatim transcripts — that are not intrinsically dramatic. The company tends to approach these texts obliquely, playfully, with an elbow to the ribs.
There are few elbows here, however. Christopher Rashee-Stevenson, a Black actor, horses around with his part of a white Cambridge undergraduate who speaks on Buckley’s side. (Gavin Price, a white actor, plays the young man, also white, who bolsters Baldwin’s.) Otherwise the debate is staged with an unfrilled gravitas. Sargeant is forceful, with a tinge of Baldwin’s mannered veneer. Williams is lightly oleaginous. Neither relies on exaggeration or archness. The gonzo props and goofy sound design and butt dances of prior E.R.S. shows? These do not appear.
What “Baldwin and Buckley” does provide feels both dense and thin, with the translation from transcript to theater incomplete. The arguments — even Buckley’s offensive ones, such as his contention that if Black Americans lack equality it’s because they lack the “particular energy” to attain it — are multifaceted, and as they speed along, unelucidated and uninterrupted, it is easy to lose the shape of them. The moral danger here could not be higher. Reduced to its essence, Buckley’s pro-meritocracy argument denies the effects of systemic racism, even while condemning individual instances of discrimination; Baldwin’s demands it. And yet, looking around the space, I saw several people quietly dozing.
At the close of the debate, the show glides into an invented scene, a conversation between Baldwin and his close friend Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines). Over drinks, they speak briefly of progress.
“We’ve got to sit down and rebuild this house,” Baldwin says.
“Yes,” Hansberry agrees, “quickly.”
But within two minutes they are playing themselves, Greig and Daphne, discussing how they met performing E.R.S.’s adaptation of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” a show that the company had originally staged without any Black actors. It’s a provocative scene, which calls out E.R.S.’s own past failings. Really it’s two provocative scenes. But they are over almost as soon as they begin.
At the real debate, Baldwin won handsomely, 544 to 164 votes by union members. Today, one hopes, the breakdown would shake out even more emphatically. Because Buckley, I would argue, was wrong on every point, excepting those points on which he claimed to agree with Baldwin. But Baldwin wasn’t entirely right either. He concludes his remarks by saying that if America fails to have a true racial reckoning “there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, “because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.”
We are 57 years beyond these debates now. Some change has come, by means both quick and slow, but the house remains unrebuilt and the questions of whether the American dream still exists, whether it ever really existed, are vexed ones. But if the dream has been wrecked, it is not the denied who have done it. It is the groups and classes who started at the top. And then pulled the golden ladder up after them.
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