December 13-19, 2007  

James Baldwin Evoked

and Remembered

By Herb Boyd

Special to the AmNews


There were many eerie moments during Calvin Levels’ portrayal of James Baldwin in his solo performance where the great writer seemed to stalk across the stage at the Schomburg Center. Levels, an award-winning actor, evoked Baldwin’s signature cadence of voice and mannerisms. He even captured the late writer’s way of emphasizing a point with a knitted brow and an unblinking stare.

“This was a remarkable performance,” commented Woodie King, Jr., one of several notable theater people in the audience for Levels’ final performance Sunday afternoon during a three-day run at the Schomburg.

It was indeed a tour de force and Levels, who also authored the solo play, has captured some of the most stirring episodes of Baldwin’s life and legacy—and this is no easy task given the almost daily drama that made Baldwin such a kinetic and charismatic figure.

Somewhere toward the middle of the play, Levels cites one of Baldwin’s memorable statements: “The role of the artist is to disturb the peace.” And disturb, he did, with his often-controversial novels, searing essays and plays, and his fiery role as a public intellectual.

Levels’ uncanny ability to get inside Baldwin’s character, to tease out and channel those sensitive moments, not only revealed Baldwin’s passionate humanity but from time to time, left Levels in tears. Whether recalling the torment Baldwin endured from his step-father, or his love for and devotion to the artist Beauford Delaney, or the turbulence with Richard Wright, Malcolm X, or admiration for the assassinated Medgar Evers and Dr. King, the tears streamed down his cheeks.

After the performance, a panel moderated by commentator Amy Goodman further explored Baldwin’s “furious passage,” and it included Sol Stein, who went to high school with Baldwin; Amiri Baraka and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, both of whom knew Baldwin intimately; and Dr. Cornel West and Brian DeShazor.

Each was given an opportunity to recount when they first met Baldwin and the impact the writer had on their lives. Stein said he first met Baldwin in 1939 and that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Among their most unforgettable connections was the publication of “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin’s first collection of essays.

“Jimmy wrote in the preface of the 1984 edition of the book that I forced him to write that book, but nobody ever forced James Baldwin to do anything,” Stein said.

Thelwell said he was 21 and a student at Howard University when Baldwin entered his life. It was from a friend who praised Baldwin that Thelwell had his first inkling of Baldwin’s literary majesty. “When I finally met him with several other students it was as if the intellectual ground began to shake under our feet,” he remembered.

Baraka said he encountered Baldwin first through the production of his 1965 play “The Amen Corner,” which was being performed at Howard University from where Baraka was later dismissed. “An instructor there said that the play set speech back a decade,” Baraka began. He admitted that early in his career he criticized Baldwin, “but that was mainly to get him to come back from Europe,” Baraka explained.


The relationship between Baraka and Baldwin was a mixture of adoration and admonition, but ended on a high note when Baraka praised him during Baldwin’s funeral services in 1987 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

“Jimmy’s was God’s Black Revolutionary voice,” said West, citing a line from Baraka’s encomium and commending him for his emotionally charged recollection of Baldwin’s prominence. “I only met Baldwin once, but was in the audience many times when he spoke. I think he looked at America through a cracked heart.”

That “cracked heart” may have been broken but it was
infused with an undeniable logic and passion, all of which the panelists touch upon and DeShazor has now painstakingly preserved on a collection of priceless CDs. Those CDs of Baldwin’s speeches and debates and their sale will help sustain the immeasurable contributions WBAI has made and continues to make in its effort to empower the powerless.

George Baldwin, the famed writer’s only surviving brother, was asked by Goodman to say a few words to the audience and he reminded people that hard times are ahead. “You think things are bad now, you just wait,” he warned in a prophetic voice that was reminiscent of his brother’s. “This is ice cream compared to what’s coming.”


© 2007 New Amsterdam News



LA Watts Times



"...a pleasing, must-see

theater experience."







LA Weekly



"...Levels'  intense stage

presence beguiles..."








LA Times


"...Levels insightfully brings to light his subject’s rare and admirable qualities."


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