Volume 1, Number 31 | The Weekly Newspaper of Chelsea

April 20 - 26, 2007

Photo by Clayton Cages

Calvin Levels in “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop,” a one-man show he’ll perform for one night only at the James Baldwin School on West 18th Street.


James Baldwin (of sorts) returns

to New York

By Jerry Tallmer

The role of the writer is not to write but to disturb the peace.


So says the James Baldwin whose “Notes of a Native Son” and “The Fire Next Time” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” and “Going to Meet the Man” woke up — disturbed — carried the news to that portion of white America that inhaled the high-explosive oxygen of his writing in the 1950s and ’60s and was willing to breathe, and listen.


So says the James Baldwin who — though dead of cancer, at 63, in 1987 — is back among us, for one night only, not in his familiar Greenwich Village but next door to it, in Chelsea, by way of a performance at the James Baldwin School on West 18th Street by an actor who was born the year Baldwin wrote “The Amen Corner,” a dominating-father/stubborn-son autobiographical drama with which young Calvin Levels could well identify.


“James Baldwin: Down From the Mountaintop,” put together   by actor Calvin Levels from the writings of Baldwin and others, will be done by him, solo, at that school — in a benefit for that school — Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m.


The key people who cross Baldwin’s life in those 90 minutes (beyond a beloved dead mama, a beloved aunt, a beloved schoolteacher, a maniacal autocratic stepfather) range from painter Beauford Delaney to novelist Richard Wright to actor Marlon Brando to poet Langston Hughes to playwright Tennessee Williams to playwright Lorraine Hansberry to cockatoo Norman Mailer (his kiss-off: “Jimmy’s too charming a writer to be major”) to actor Rip Torn to teacher Lee Strasberg to prophets Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., to —


You get it. The people — some of the people — we too may have known. Who perhaps even mean something to some of the kids who will be taking this all in on April 26.


“About four years ago,” says Calvin Levels, over the telephone from California, “I was trying to think of a project for young audiences, in a voice that speaks to this time. In Cleveland [where he himself was once a kid] I grew up at Karamu House, the oldest black theater in this country. Langston Hughes came out of there. I was taking acting classes there at age six, and it was at Karamu that I first saw ‘The Amen Corner,’ and resonated with the lead character” — the rebellious son of a rigid, hellfire Baptist preacher.


“My father, Jesse Levels, was like that. He was a boxing trainer who had been a prizefighter himself. He wanted me to be a boxer. I didn’t really want to do it. Going to the gym every day — a drudgery. Getting my butt beat. I wanted to be an actor.”


It was at Cuyahoga Community College that Calvin Levels really started reading James Baldwin, and also started reading about Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio. “I had enough of Cleveland winters, sold my huge record collection to get the money to go out to Los Angeles, got there, signed up with Lee, who gave me a scholarship and made me his personal chauffeur.”


Levels began working in films almost from the start, “but after a while I found I missed the seasons” and had developed a hunger for New York. Got here in the early 1980s, tried out at a reading of “Open Admissions,” by Shirley Lauro, a play about a speech class in which a young man named, as it happens, Calvin, has to struggle to speak clearly.


Calvin Levels got the part. The show went from Off-Broadway’s Ensemble Studio Theater to New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater to Broadway’s Music Box Theater, with Levels receiving a 1984 Tony nomination for his performance in the lead. In time, after lots of other stage work here and hereabouts, “New York burned me out,” and he headed back west.


“James Baldwin is someone I really feel passionate about,” Levels says. “It’s really a stretch for me; he’s too brilliant.” After much research, the actor sat down to write a draft. “It just oozed out of me, I had it in no time.” But he knew it needed refinement, so he took it to the acting sessions of the Actors Studio.


Calvin Levels had a brother who was murdered, 40 years ago, in Greenwich Village. James Baldwin’s life was more than once threatened in the days when the intense young man from Harlem was cruising the streets of Greenwich Village. Being black, and small, made the danger more so.


“[N]early every white person in this country knows one thing,” Baldwin says through the lips of Levels. “They may not know what they want, but they do know they would not like to be black here … You’re safe if you’re white. Therefore you’re unsafe if you’re not … ”


Most of the script that this auditor read before speaking with Levels rings true — the sometimes strained give and take between Baldwin and Mailer, Baldwin and Hansberry, Baldwin and [his idol] Richard Wright, etc. One thing in that script is not true, and I hope it comes out. It was not Baldwin of whom Truman Capote famously said: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” The target of that zinger was Jack Kerouac.


What was indeed very true, because I saw it close up, when Baldwin sent for me before his departure — the only time we ever met — was his terror at going down south for the first time in his life, to Mississippi, in 1964, Rightly so. One week later, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.


Calvin Levels also met James Baldwin only once. Sort of.


“It was in the summer after ‘Open Admissions,’ when I was living at 4th Street and Bank. I was having lunch at the Riviera, looked over, and saw Jimmy Baldwin at the next table. He was in New York for his 60th-birthday party. I couldn’t find the balls to go over and talk to him. I froze up. I’ll never forgive myself.”


That’s all right. Jimmy forgives you. And those kids at that school on 18th Street, they forgive you too.

JAMES BALDWIN; DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP. By and performed solo by Calvin Levels. One night only, Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m., at the James Baldwin School, 351 West 18th Street. Tickets (toward benefit of the school) $35 and $50, (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.Telecharge.com

© 2006 Community Media, LLC


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