Posted by Rachel Kim & Derek Liakos
On Feb. 18 in the Janet Kinghorn Bernhard Theater, Staged Dreams presented "James Baldwin – Down from the Mountaintop" an original solo play written and performed by Calvin Levels.
The play takes the audience through the life of James Baldwin, who was a novelist, playwright and human rights activist.
"James Baldwin – Down from the Mountaintop" guided the audience through many major points of Baldwin's life, including the publication of his first novel, "Go Tell It On the Mountain," his stay in Paris, and when he joined Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.
At the start of the play, Levels emerged from the audience and graced the stage. This opening gesture reminded audience members that Baldwin was just like any other individual and transformed this historically important figure into a close, personal form.
Levels spoke in the voice of Baldwin, an act that would naturally be assumed by the audience, but was self-referential and claimed, in the voice of Baldwin, that he had possessed the physical being of an actor to share his story.
The set was composed of an armchair, a coffee table with books and a liquor bottle and side tables with lamps and photographs. This simple set allowed members of the audience to concentrate their focus on Baldwin's story.
From the start of the play, there were projections that showed drawings and paintings of Baldwin.
The images changed as Levels continued telling Baldwin's story. Photos of Baldwin's family, his milestones and even an unsettling photo of a lynching were portrayed on the screen.
The visuals and accompanying music were present throughout the entire production, but never detracted from Level's performance and kept the audience's attention.
Various texts that questioned and dealt with issues of racial equality and sexuality were also projected onto the screen.
The overall show itself was a monologue, but Levels often addressed the audience and even reacted to their presence and reactions.
His monologue established and defined the role of the writer, especially during a time like the Civil Rights Movement, as the disturber of peace.
The audience was able to see the connection between the political turmoil that inspired Baldwin's works such as his play, "Blues for Mister Charlie" (1964).
Although this 75-minute performance only featured one actor, the narrative structure worked well because of Levels's engaging performance and swift movement through the important events of Baldwin's life.
A question-and-answer session followed the performance and Levels eagerly responded to the active audience response and feedback.
He shared his personal history with Baldwin and claimed that Baldwin would be a role that he would play for the rest of his life.
Levels is a member of the Actors Studio and is a New York Drama Desk and Tony Award nominee.
The event was sponsored by the Black Faculty Staff Group, Intercultural Studies, the Office of Student Diversity Programs, Religious & Spiritual Life and the English and Theater Departments.