James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Review By Ryan Max
When his book Go Tell it on the Mountain was published in 1953, James Baldwin’s place in the pantheon of American Civil Rights history was secure—so much so that now, 20 years after his death from cancer in 1987, his image has taken on the quality of legend.
This is in part due to his own attempts to mythologize his life—using his homosexuality, his race, and his illegitimate birth to create a public persona removed from his intensely guarded private life. His friendship with slain heroes Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. only added to his mystique, and his legend has taken on a life of its own, threatening to obscure the man on whom it was based.
Calvin Levels’ one-man play “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountain” does its best to save Baldwin from his own myth. Levels, who plays Baldwin himself, begins by entering the stage from the corner, seeming more puzzled by the large area provided for him to perform than ready to fill it. He even steps off the stage for a moment, silently sizing up the audience and the stage with a furrowed brow.
There is no fourth wall in Levels’ play. It is offsetting at first to be addressed by the actor, but it becomes apparent that the whole point of the play is to lower the barriers between Baldwin and his audience, a task Levels takes to vigorously.
The set is a living room supposedly modeled on Baldwin’s home in the south of France. There are earth-toned armchairs, tables cluttered with black and white photos, and a coffee table complete with a half-full bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
The entire play consists of Levels pacing around his living room, a glass of Johnny Walker in his hand, picking up pictures and (Baldwin’s own) books from the table, telling the story behind each one. He takes on Baldwin’s life chronologically, touching on all of Baldwin’s major life events before a voice (God, presumably) calls him back to the mountain.
The purpose of his brief visit from that mountain is twofold. Baldwin’s exalted legend holds sway with only a fraction of the people who know and respect his fallen friends like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Calvin Level as James Balwin
This particular performance took place at the James Baldwin School on Manhattan’s west side (with Baldwin’s family and friends in the audience, no less), so many in the audience most likely knew far more about Baldwin than Levels portrayed onstage. Levels puts himself in the sticky position of having to both personalize a Baldwin that many have put up on a pedestal and introduce him to another portion that know little or nothing about him.
Navigating this divide turns out to be the play’s downfall. In his attempts to compromise by treading on events any Google search on Baldwin would turn up, Levels fails both to achieve any true intimacy for the initiated and to provoke any further interest in the author for those less familiar with him.
He portrays Baldwin’s personal reactions to pivotal moments—his stint in Istanbul, MLK’s death—but stops there. These moments can be intensely affecting, to be sure: the bursts of fiery anger at a friend’s murder, the sarcastic humor with which he discusses his run-ins with Truman Capote, watching Levels’ eyes dart around as the words to describe his anguish, so fluent on the page, escape his speech.
In the end, though, he barely steps beyond the highly public moments of Baldwin’s life, leaving his legend on high, firmly out of reach to anyone in the audience. Even when he spoke of “the happiest time in my life,” -referring to Baldwin’s time in southern France - the only visitors he mentions are Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
This is myth-building by association: it is hard to imagine that not a cousin, not a brother, not even a friend from the neighborhood visited Baldwin during his time there. But Levels makes the choice to name check two people with their own legends propping them up—another chance to paint a truly personal portrait of the man squandered.
As one play-goer mentioned at the intermission, Levels’ “muttering is very Baldwinesque.” His affectations are in fact where he succeeds most in breaking down the distance between author and audience, getting a few chuckles and gasps along the way.
But much of his behavior betrays a highly modern sensibility of how a gay man should act. When a cell phone went off in the audience, Levels’ eyebrows arched so high they nearly met his hairline, and he bobbed his head back and forth just long enough to elicit some laughter from the audience.
Another time, he advised an audience member to “get it while you can” as he bounced on his hips, telling the gleeful audience that there is no sex to be had on the mountain top. His occasionally limp wrist and the peppering of his speech with “honey,” among other things, all seem to endear Levels himself to his audience far more than they do for Baldwin. He is left behind, for the most part, in the history books.
The courage of Levels’ performance, though standing alone on the stage, assuming the persona of a man whose family sits a few feet in front of him is admirable. He makes sure to bring not just Baldwin himself to the present, but his life’s work.
Mentioning events from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq war, he asserts over and over that Baldwin’s messages of love and hope, which resonate today as much as they did a half century ago. As Saul Stein, Baldwin’s literary agent, said after the performance: “He discovered America.” What he uncovered is still here and, if nothing else, Levels does a brilliant job reminding us of that.
The Harlem that James Baldwin knew as a child no longer exists. New developments abound in his old neighborhood: a block and a half from the library in which Baldwin spent a good deal of his childhood sits a stark new high rise, complete with a Starbucks on the ground floor.
The sense of isolation, of loneliness and alienation, that the skyscrapers of wealthy Midtown Manhattan must have never let Harlem forget is dissipating, filled with the chain stores and young professionals that have come to pervade many less resilient parts of the city.
The Harlem Branch of the public library, where the little Bladwin learned his craft, has shelves filled with DVDs and a bank of computers taking up a large chunk of its floor space. Here, the distance from Baldwin spans not only decades but immeasurable change—in attitude, in atmosphere and in circumstances.
But taking Levels’ message to heart, that Baldwin can teach us about ourselves as much as he can teach the past, shows a glimmer of the hope that comes with truth. Scanning the “B’s” in the adult section, you will come across Baldwin’s own books—three of them—in the very library that he used to sit, searching for a way out of the same old cycles that still envelop us all.
Ryan Max is a New York-based freelance journalist and a graduate of NYU School of Journalism.
James Baldwin: Down From the Moutaintop debuts in London this summer.
The JAMES BALDWIN SCHOOL is a small, community-minded, college preparatory public school in New York. Their mission is to provide a philosophical and practical education for all students, an education that features creativity and inquiry, encourages habitual reading and productivity, as well as self-reflection and meaningful thought.
Calvin Levels has performed JAMES BALDWIN–DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP at a number of theatres including The Actors Studio Sunset Millennium Theatre in West Hollywood, California directed by Charles Burnett. He has also performed the play at many colleges and universities, including Princeton University and Northwestern University.
He is the winner of a number of nominations including the Tony Award, New York Drama Desk Award and New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in a Play. He also received The Theatre World Award for Outstanding New Talent. Mr. Levels has recently been bestowed with an honor by the National James Baldwin Literary Society in recognition of his contribution to the legacy of James Baldwin.
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