By Walter Rutledge
August 2, 2010 marked the eighty-sixth birthday of James Baldwin. For the second year in a row the Faison Firehouse Theater has chosen to step to the forefront and present Remembering Jimmy– a tribute to the late James Baldwin. Last year the celebration was a forum with colleagues and contemporaries, and family and friends sharing memories of this extraordinary human being, whose life was lived in the service of his art and humanity.
This year the production was much more theatrical in both design and presentation. The first act was a well crafted artistic and educational amalgamation of drama, dance, music, still photography, dramatic readings of Baldwin’s works, and actual video clips of James Baldwin from various interviews throughout his life. In his brief opening remarks Faison stated, “The evening is to remember somethings you have forgotten, and somethings you have never learned. It is the things that we have let go that sent me on my quest to do this.”
Faison Firehouse Theatre stalwarts Ebony Jo-Ann (Zoraesque, March 20, 2010), Genovis Albright (Remembering Jimmy August 2, 2009) and Brian Whitted (Musical Director) contributed their artistry to the production. Ms. Jo-Ann sang the very appropriate Go Tell It On The Mountain and an after finale encore of For All We Know. Mr. Albright sang three selections Brown Baby (Oscar Brown Jr.), Mississippi God Damn (Nina Simone), and his own composition The Power of One.
“James Baldwin was one of my heroes and to appear on stage in a tribute to his life is amazing to me. I hope that audiences will leave the theater having journeyed back to a time when we were Negro and closer to the struggle. Out of that experience, came greatness. Great music, art, and thought that resonates to this day. This is evidenced by Mr. Baldwin’s life and work, and designed so lovingly for the stage by George Faison makes being close to the struggle have meaning”, affirms Albright.
Aubrey Lynch danced a collaborative effort created with Faison to Nat King Cole’s timeless rendition of Nature Boy. Mr. Lynch, a former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performed with the control and focus of a seasoned professional. His boyish Sal Mineo good looks and pliant body were almost type casting for the words and message of the song.
Throughout the first act, Daniel Carlton, Dr. Eleanor Traylor and Faison seamlessly combined musical performances with dramatic readings of Baldwin’s works. The most powerful moments in the first act, however, was the video clips featuring James Baldwin. The clips provided us with a very intimate look into the life and thoughts of James Baldwin, articulated through his own words and in his own voice.
One of the best video moments was the excerpt of Baldwin silencing William F. Buckley on the Dick Cavett Show. William Buckley, the father of the American Conservative Movement, was really a leftover colonialist. Like the Victorian British, Buckley felt his patrician affluence afforded him the right to pontificate, categorize, pigeonhole; and offer his definitive opinion on any and every topic or issue from a position of divine omniscience.
In one editorial from the sixties Buckley wrote “The central question… is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes…. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct…” (HYPERLINK “http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2006/5/23/223628/969) In other words National Review opposed civil rights legislation. Later Buckley expressed opposition to the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To see Baldwin silence that educated idiot was an extremely powerful and personally gratifying moment. Baldwin showed us the most powerful weapons against injustice are truth and the commitment of the defenders to move forward with unwavering conviction. When one walks in the pure light of truth and spiritual honesty there is no weapon that can stand against you, and no force that can defeat you- not even death.
After intermission sage and living legend Dr. Maya Angelou took command of the stage. She began by sharing with us her memories of James Baldwin. Dr. Angelou told a story about an afternoon she and Baldwin had spent in a bar in Harlem. The story is told with equally vivid detail in A Song Flung Up To Heaven, the sixth installment of her autobiography (the first volume is the literary classic I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings).
Although Dr. Angelou informed us she did not use profanity the crowd roared when she ended a Baldwin quote with a compound word that infers a person who has had sexual relations with someone’s maternal parent. The conversation soon went beyond anecdotal reminiscences and became a reminder of the rich legacy of Americans of African decent. The message centered on what she called our inheritance, the treasures left to us by individuals like Baldwin, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. It also championed the unsung bravery and wisdom of the maid and common laborer, who put ego and false pride aside and endured indignities in order to provide for their families.
This was the most poignant yet most prophetic part of the evening. In essence Dr. Angelou was reminding us (possibly warning us) that even history recorded could become history forgotten. Society at large has a tendency to trivialize people and events especially when the response to injustice is eloquence. In many instances this special brand of courage and sacrifice has been vilified and deemed complacent or weak. We forget a wave begins as a ripple.
In a conversation with George Faison following Remembering Jimmy we had an opportunity to discuss the performance and his idea for a series of theatrical presentations honoring the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Walter Rutledge: In your opening remarks you said this performance was to bring about awareness of things forgotten or never learned.
George Faison: Yes the past has been forgotten. It is all in books, but nobody is opening a book. The books are gathering dust. It is like all of the good lyrics that are not being sung anymore because the songs are not top ten hits, yet they evoke a message.
WR: You expanded upon the program format from last year from a forum to a performance.
GF: This time we wanted to use more of his words. The purpose for highlighting a Baldwin birthday is to celebrate someone who had the boldness to speak for people who didn’t have a voice. He was able to put the words in context to our everyday lives. Baldwin gave us the courage to stand up, and have the determination to live our lives out loud.
His life reminds us not to shirk our responsibilities because of the barriers that have been put in front of us. To remember whom we are and also tell our children who we are. As Dr. Angelou says, “Our children forget they have been bought and paid for”. So if we have been bought and paid for why aren’t we spending that currency as if we have earned it?
We have earned our freedom; we have earned the right to determine our own destiny. In order to not repeat or relive all of the dreadful things that have happened to us we are going to have to practice remembrance. Remembrance in all forms; singing, dancing, acting, the spoken word, the written word, we are passing on the best that we are to each other.
I have taken on the responsibility to recapture the traditions, before they are lost and forgotten. Not just the traditions of black people but all people. We should all be multi-cultural and at least bi-lingual. Then we would all see what connects us to each other. We would see we all have a place, all of us. Everyone. White, Black, Asian, Native American, Muslim and Hispanic, we all have a place, we all have a voice, we all share the same experiences.
George Faison’s commitment to, and investment in the future, and the artistic community brings back memories of the George Faison Universal Dance Experience, and in many ways the theatre has become the Faison Firehouse Universal Experience. His sincerity and diligence are to be commended and supported. Clearly the public has embraced his message; and if the sold out performances, and enthusiastic theater savvy audiences are any indication of the future, then we can rest assured that the traditions are alive and well at 6 Hancock Place.
In Photo: 1) Poster James Baldwin, Dr. Maya Angelou 2) Ebony Jo-Ann 3) Genovis Albright 4) Aubrey Lynch 5) George Faison 6&7) Dr. Maya Angelou 8) Dr. Eleanor Traylor, Lynn Whitfield, George Faison
Photos By: Risasi Dais