By Walter Rutledge
On February 22, 651 ARTS presented Roundtable 63; an evening of social awareness and education through the arts at Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts at LIU Brooklyn. The presentation consisted of a reading of James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire followed by a panel discussion and an audience Q and A. The premise of the evening was to draw parallels and contrast between the tumultuous year of 1963 and the sociopolitical climate of 2013.
The presentation of, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire was an inspiring yet irreverent looks into the life of Baldwin. The story centers on the morning Baldwin and a group African- American activist prepare to meet with then United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy. This historical meeting included Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark, and a young Freedom Rider Jerome Smith.
Actors Charles Reese and Forrest McClendon and stage reader Myla Churchill transports us back to 1963 in Baldwin’s Greenwich Village apartment. Reese’s portrayal of Baldwin was a study in flawed genius. Alone in his apartment he breaks in profanity-laced tirades, while frantically multi-tasking on the telephone.
The production reveals both Baldwin’s ambivalence to politics and commitment to his art. We meet a conflicted man; dealing with his inner demons of alcoholism, black on black prejudice, and his sexual preference and personal proclivities. Forrest McClendon plays multiple characters including Belafonte, Hansberry, Horne, Smith and Peter (Baldwin’s one night stand). His interpretation of these characters provided just the right balance to Reese’s larger than life Baldwin; while stage reader Churchill artfully used her talents to be, at times, an invisible third voice.
The panel discussion addressed issues from education to incarceration. Panelists included director Robert O’Hara, artist and activist Shani Jamila, Baldwin biographer David Leeming, and actors McClendon and Reese. Roundtable 63 was an ideal Black History Month presentation. We commend 651 ARTS for this blend of art, education and discourse.
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