By Walter Rutledge
Sunday August 2, 2009 was the eighty-fifth birthday of author, poet, playwright, activist and Harlemite James Baldwin. The day unfortunately was marked with little acknowledgement or fanfare. Tragically in the case of Mr. Baldwin even history recorded can become history forgotten.
The Faison Firehouse Theatre presented the consummate birthday party honoring the life of Mr. Baldwin, one of the most prolific and provocative American literary icons.
The fanfare and celebration began upon our arrival at the wrought iron gates in front of the Firehouse. Large red umbrellas and contrasting white tables and chairs provided a gathering place for the overflowing standing room only audience.
Once inside the lobby the doors to the theater were open to accommodate the crowd keeping all in earshot of the event. The stage set and ambience was simple and timeless. A potpourri of chairs, European traditional, African carved high backs, and stools were arranged in a semi circle for the “elders”. Two Persian rugs, African fabric hung like banners on the sides of the stage, and an upright piano downstage helped transformed the black box space into the type of forum Baldwin would have either organized or attended.
Mr. Faison, the first of many contributors, opened the multimedia soiree speaking forcefully of the need to remember Baldwin, especially in the present artistic and economic climate. American editor-at-large for Vogue magazine Andre Leon Talley elegantly profiled the thirty-year friendship between Baldwin and photographer Richard Avedon; that culminated with the 1974 book Nothing Personal. Song stylist Genovis Albright wowed the audience with three selections. The incompatible Sonia Sanchez powerful poem literally evolved into a chant, while Amari Baraka humanized Baldwin with poignant readings of his eulogy and an excerpt from Evidence of Things Not Seen.
The fitting tribute orchestrated by Mr. Faison attracted an audience as eclectic and diverse as the changing face of Harlem. In attendance were people of all ages, nationalities and walks of life. A few of the notables in attendance included Alvin Ailey dancer emeritus Dudley Williams, Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, Choreographers Louis Johnson and Robert Garland, and author Louise Meriweather.
In fact the entire afternoon was part entertainment, part biographical, part celebfest and a total celebration, all in a style befitting Baldwin. The title for Baldwin’s book Evidence of Things Not Seen is a reference to the definition of faith from the Epistle to the Hebrews 11:1. This celebration was a reaffirmation of the importance and genius of James Baldwin. The only element missing was Baldwin himself; but it was clear his spirit was definitely among us.
Happy Birthday James Baldwin.
Photography by Christopher Lee