There’s a remarkable moment of prescience in “This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro,” during which James Baldwin, portrayed by the talented and sincere Johnard Washington, says he remembers Robert Kennedy saying once that it was conceivable “in forty years, in America, we might have a Negro president.”
Kennedy’s observation, Baldwin notes, “sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people,” but in the Harlem barbershops, it was perceived much differently; indeed, with “laughter” and “bitterness” and “scorn.” And then Baldwin proceeds to take a logical scalpel, full of morality and pathos, to Kennedy’s innocent optimism, just as he does with the motion at the center of the famous 1965 Cambridge University debate.
The debate’s motion, which Baldwin calls “hideously loaded,” is also the title of the play adaptation produced by the Oracle theatre company and performed on Fri. August 14 at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake Street.
“We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president,” Baldwin says.
It’s an incredible preemption of the kind of blithe paternalism that has defined American society’s treatment of blacks; which, in fact, characterizes the treatment Baldwin receives at the hands of his debate opponent, William F. Buckley, Jr. — widely considered to be the father of modern conservatism — portrayed by Oracle actor Jeremy Clark.
It is one thing to watch that famous confrontation on YouTube, quite another to see it reenacted by actual people in front of an audience of roughly two dozen who also participate in the drama (they voted, as did the audience 50 years ago, overwhelmingly in favor of the motion). And it’s another thing to see this historical clash of ideas play out in an era troubled by many of the same racial problems — Baldwin and Buckley are both dead, but Ta-Nehisi Coates and Fox News are alive and well; as is the Black Lives Matter movement and George Zimmerman.
For the night, Austin Town Hall’s auditorium gymnasium was reconfigured into the Cambridge Union Society — hot overhead lights, the parliamentarian seating arrangement and the heat of a room with no air conditioning worked to recreate the high tension that likely backlit that historic night in England.
Fifty years ago, the two men sparred in front of a standing-room-only crowd. Baldwin was described as the “star” attraction, with many of the students in attendance having already encountered him through his famous book of essays, The Fire Next Time. Buckley, the founder of the influential conservative magazine the National Review, was the lesser attraction, but much more at home with the event’s formal proceedings. He wore a much more appropriate tux and bowtie, Baldwin wore a suit. Buckley, after all, was the Anglophile whose patrician accent sounds like an aristocratic imitation (despite Buckley, at one point, accusing Baldwin of using a faux British accent to deliver his arguments).
Oracle’s production, adapted and directed by Zachary Baker-Salmon, is based almost entirely on the debate transcripts — two Cambridge students debated for and against the motion for roughly five minutes ahead of Baldwin and Buckley.
But part of what makes the play more than just a reenactment is the engagement of the actors and its sheer physicality. The supporting actors, seated among the crowd, interrupt the proceedings often witih rowdy responses and points of objection that allow those bit parts to take on textures of their own. Whereas Baldwin, in the actual debate, was more or less stationary at the dais, Washington walks around the center of the room eyeing each audience member during his argument.
And the image of Clark, who stands at least six feet tall, towering inches above Washington’s seated body as he declares, “Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you tonight without any of the surrounding protections that come by virtue of the fact that you are a Negro,” that he will, instead, deal with the coddled black celebrity’s arguments as if he were a white man, works to chilling effect.
But Clark, who mimics the late conservative leader’s patrician accent to the point of parody, doesn’t paint Buckley as a one-dimensional villain, said Tony Anderson, a Milwaukee resident who came all the way to the West Side to see the play.
“I thought the guy who was playing Buckley made him much too likable,” Anderson said, laughing.
What did he think of their arguments for and against the motion?
“Some things were prescient,” he said. “Not just the election of a black president, but the black masses are still in the slums and we hear the same arguments. I was thinking about Fox News and how they’re about as effective as Buckley was at the same thing. But the biggest takeaway for me was the brilliant portrayal of Buckley. The actor played him so that it was absolutely clear that he didn’t believe a single thing he was saying — except for the part where he said we’ll fight for our way of life.”
You can still catch a performance of this play, which will run until September 19. For more information, click here.