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.Elevator Repair Service Reenacts a Legendary Debate

Cal Performances presents staged production of ‘Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge’

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Can a one-hour, 1965 televised debate between academically inclined orators that’s available for anyone to watch on YouTube warrant a fully produced, live-theater reenactment in 2024? It most certainly and profoundly can, when it comes to New York-based Elevator Repair Service’s magnetic Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge.

The production is based on the original debate that took place at Cambridge University Union between James Baldwin, a queer Black American writer and activist, and William F. Buckley Jr., a conservative white American writer and founder of National Review. The Bay Area premiere of the production closely follows the staging and language of the original debate and will take place on March 1-3 at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Playhouse.

The actual 1965 debate began with two British undergraduate students supporting (David Heycock) and opposing (Jeremy Burford) the resolution, “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” The junior debaters were cast immediately into the shadows by the event’s two headliners. Baldwin spoke third and Buckley followed, as both men demonstrated the full weight of their markedly different but equally formidable reputations for being commanding public speakers with exceptional elocutionary skills and intellectual prowess.

Baldwin’s impeccable, impassioned defense of the premise received a standing ovation; Buckley’s rebuttal reached for a cool or sober tone and chilling articulation—an approach largely disassembled upon viewing the debate more than 50 years later. Backlit by the killings of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and other unarmed people of color by police officers, as well as the country’s 400-year history when it comes to the Black experience in America, Buckley’s disdainful and dismissive commentary concerning systemic racism and his personal attacks on Baldwin’s accent and emotionality ring sour. Notably, Baldwin’s position won by a landslide when the final votes were tallied: 544 ‘Ayes’ and 164 ‘Noes.’

Elevator Repair Service specializes in dramatizing found texts and holding true to the original language in the novels, court transcripts, recorded or televised public debates and other items selected. The Baldwin/Buckley production coming to Berkeley was conceived by actor Greig Sargeant with ERS Artistic Director John Collins.

Sargeant plays Baldwin, Scott Shepherd appears as Buckley and Collin directs the reenactment. A coda they added is a fictional conversation between Baldwin and playwright/writer Lorraine Hansberry drawn from facts—actual letters exchanged and other archival documents—that extends the debate and disallows Buckley having the “last word,” according to Sargeant.

In an interview, Sargeant describes landing on the idea of collaborating with Collins to bring the debate to the stage. He had first worked with ERS in 2007, when the group was workshopping William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Collins had been rehearsing with white actors playing non-white characters, and decided it wasn’t working.

Sargeant and two other Black actors were brought in as “the Black people,” lending a degree of authenticity but, ironically, underscoring the debate’s premise. As in most if not all industries, the American Dreams of white actors in theater have been largely attained at the expense of people of color.

Offered and declining a different role in 2019, Collins surprised Sargeant by asking, “What production would you like to do?” Once they’d settled on the debate as a piece of theater offering drama, urgency, relevancy, and a springboard to conversations that counter the force and evil of systemic racism, Sargeant dug into the role. He worked for six months, listening to the debate hundreds of times and memorizing Baldwin’s speaking rhythms, timbre and cadence. 

“I never try to initiate his voice; I try to invoke it in myself,” Sargeant says. “I relax so I can flow into the rhythm. The speech is so well written, it’s like a map for me. I just fully commit to the words and let my voice come up from that.”

Buckley’s comment about Baldwin’s accent near the end of his segment is a deflection, says Sargeant. “He’s trying to paint Baldwin in a certain way because they’re at Cambridge, an intellectual haven. He’s trying to make a point that Baldwin is trying to be something other than what he is. It’s ridiculous because Baldwin didn’t have an accent and Buckley’s voice is so affected, almost inauthentic.”

Baldwin’s simplified physicality, micro-expressions during Buckley’s speech and bright smiles receiving the standing ovation are intriguing, Sargeant says, but the entire package is aimed only at serving his purpose. 

“He doesn’t care what’s expected of him,” Sargeant says. “He’s there to deliver a very strong message, a sermon about racism in America. He moves very little. In our staging we do what he does: sits in a chair, stands, delivers. Having watched the video, my body takes on a life of its own. It’s all about my devotion 100% to the material. That dictates how I move, how I speak.”

The greatest challenge is achieving Baldwin’s essence. With vast historical reference for inevitable comparisons, Sargeant has found melding his own Black, gay-man-in-America identity with Baldwin’s soul most effective.

“Blended, we represent a whole group of people who’ve been disadvantaged because of history,” Sargeant says. “In what ways are we different? That’s a very good question. My parents were immigrants from South America. He had several generations of being in America and relatives who were slaves. I’ve always faced racism, but growing up in the ’70s was very different than Baldwin growing up in the ’30s and ’40s. And yet, he left the United States in 1948 because the racism was too much for him.

“Coincidently, I’ve been going to France almost annually for the last 40 years,” Sargeant says. “There’s racism there, but Black Americans are not No. 1 on that list. The microaggressions are not building to where you believe in the myth of the Negro. It makes a huge difference when you’re in that environment.”

The scene with Hansberry was vital, providing humanizing dialogue between two best friends and paying tribute to Hansberry, whose too-early death at age 34 came just three weeks before the debate.

“Here we are in 2024 at a full-circle moment,” Sargeant says. “A Black person speaking strongly to another Black person onstage about racism and what it means to be a Black person working with a white theater company. To his credit, John added this scene to show how when people work together for the common good they can create something incredible, which is this piece.”

With the vision of continuing the conversation in real-time, he says audience reactions cover the spectrum. “White people are surprised it’s so relevant, and shocked that racism hasn’t changed,” he says. “Systemic racism is still very much a part of our society. People of color are not surprised.

“We talk about DEI and there’s been a push toward that, which is a deeply wonderful thing I’m hoping is not a fad,” Sargeant adds. “But we’re talking about the lives and souls and advancement of people disenfranchised for hundreds of years in this country who still have to fight for equality. It’s not white liberals we need, it’s white radicals we want to come to this show and [participate in] this change for the good of America.”

Sergeant says his primary job as an actor is to be a vessel. “I’m not angry when I speak,” he says. “The nuance is in getting the message across.”

Instead of despair, he channels hope and eagerness for continued conversations, gratitude for finding himself creating and performing this production and role, and dedication to live theater as it carves a path to a better future for America.

“I have no control over what people think when they leave this show,” he says. “The one thing I can do is give them enough of Baldwin’s message to have a conversation with their children, parents, friends and teachers to move this forward.

“A year from now, I hope we live in a society where things are fair, and people can be who they’re meant to be without anyone trying to put them down or treating them in any way that isn’t human,” he continues. “We have to take care of each other. I so hope we’re on the road to that a year from now.”

Elevator Repair Service’s Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, Mar. 1-3 at Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley. For more info, visit calperformances.org

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