Volume 1, Number 33 | The Weekly Newspaper of Chelsea

May 4 - 10, 2007


Chelsea Now photo by Marsha Lebedev Bernstein
Calvin Levels responds to an audience member’s question during the panel discussion following his performance of “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop,” at Chelsea’s James Baldwin High School last Thursday. He is joined by (from left to right) Carole Weinstein, Daniel Baldwin, Mia Santaci, Sol Stein and Marie LeBlanc.

Show and ‘tell’ brings

James Baldwin to Chelsea

By Marsha Lebedev Bernstein

Actor and playwright Calvin Levels ambles to center stage in a packed Chelsea auditorium, playing the part of author and activist James Baldwin. With his black-suited back to the audience, Levels surveys the living room set before him as a recording of Baldwin’s voice set to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is pumped into the auditorium. A projected black and white portrait of Baldwin hovers before him.

The audience quickly learns it is accompanying Baldwin on a posthumous return to his home in St. Paul de Vence, a medieval village in the South of France. Levels circles the coffee table and, with familiar nods of the head, takes stock of the modestly upholstered couch, wicker chair and framed photos arranged on two side tables. He glances back at the coffee table, zeros in on a bottle of Johnny Walker and, with an impish grin, remarks to the audience: “Well, at least they got the goddamn liquor right!”

Baldwin’s sense of humor is just one of myriad details revealed about the writer in “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop,” a one-man play penned and performed by Tony Award nominee Calvin Levels, most recently at Chelsea’s James Baldwin High School last Thursday night. Channeling Baldwin, Levels speaks directly to the audience in an intimate and unrestrained manner.

From gossipy anecdotes about the famous and infamous (author Truman Capote is called a “patronizing queen” who, referring to Baldwin’s work, quipped, “You know Jimmy, that’s not writing, it’s typing”) to emotionally raw accounts of Baldwin’s childhood (a verbally abusive stepfather mocked his physical appearance and young hopes of becoming a writer), the performance transforms the viewer from audience member to Baldwin confidante. The result is a feeling that one has joined the author for an afternoon of cocktails—and candid conversation—at Paris’ Les Deux Magots, one of the city’s most famous cafés, located on Baldwin’s beloved St. Germain des Prés.

If anyone can attest to the presence of Baldwin’s spirit during Levels’ performance, it is his family and friends who attended the Thursday performance of “Mountaintop” at J.B.H.S., a small, college preparatory public high school on West 18th Street.

“Calvin really nailed my uncle Jimmy’s body language, the eyebrow raising,” noted Baldwin’s nephew, Daniel Baldwin, during the panel discussion following the play that night. His mother, Carole Weinstein, echoed her son’s sentiments. “There’s a feeling that Calvin portrayed that I always observed in Jimmy. The essence of Jimmy is very hard to convey, [but] Calvin has captured an inner spirit of his—and never met him.”

Sol Stein, Baldwin’s publisher and childhood friend, another participant of the evening’s panel discussion, was also moved by Levels’ performance and, like Baldwin’s relatives, felt “Jimmy” was in the room that night. “I can’t tell you what [“Mountaintop”] evoked in me tonight. It made Jimmy very real for me,” Stein told the audience.

When discussing what attracted him to Baldwin, Stein recounted how others often wondered about their friendship. How was it, people would ask, that someone like Stein, a white, Jewish, straight and married man, ended up so close to someone like Baldwin, a black, Christian and gay man.

“The answer is very simple,” Stein explained, “and something that [was revealed] this evening. Jimmy was very smart, and that’s something I wanted most in my life: someone around who I could learn from.”

Stein cited his friendship with Baldwin as the reason he desegregated his infantry division during the Second World War, a progressive move that took place a notable two years before the Unites States Army decided to desegregate its armed forces.

While Stein may have had the pleasure and privilege of learning from Baldwin firsthand, thousands of young students today are reaping similar benefits today. Not only can they study Baldwin’s masterful literary works, such as the venerable “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” but young adults can also join Levels on his 90-plus minute onstage odyssey.

In addition to bringing Baldwin to life on numerous theater house stages nationwide, Levels has presented “Mountaintop” on university campuses across the country, from Sonoma State to Syracuse. “I designed the play to [reach] a young audience and create interest in Baldwin’s work,” Levels explained after his show at the James Baldwin School. If the reactions of the many high school students in the school’s expansive theater that night are any indication, Generation Y gets it.

Applause of recognition swept the room at the mention of the Iraqi war and Hurricane Katrina as current examples of violence and racism. Throughout the play, Levels wove in a current-day punch list of other such instances. “Police Brutality. Hate Crimes. Trent Lott. Rush Limbaugh. Capitol Hill. Don Imus.” He also cited the barbarity that recently took the lives of students and faculty at Virginia Tech as the very same savagery that prematurely ended the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy decades ago.

All these 21st-century illustrations brought home a point Baldwin supposedly tried to make to King more than 40 years ago. When told by the civil rights activist that “segregation is dead,” Levels’ Baldwin offered an impassioned retort. “But how long, how violent, how expensive of a funeral will it be?”

The enumeration of above-the-fold current events in Levels’ solo show was a powerful reminder that the ill wills of American society Baldwin wrote about, struggled with and reviled against are still, in many ways, plaguing this country, and its citizens’ hearts and minds, 20 years after his death. This renders Baldwin’s words all the more relevant today.

Marie Carmelle Bernard, a James Baldwin School senior, raised her hand from her theater seat during the panel discussion, saying she often had to “put Baldwin’s books down to absorb the nature” and profundity of his words. Bernard asked Levels if he is as affected by Baldwin’s works as she is. The actor concurred: “I’ll just be rehearsing my lines and hear anew what [Baldwin] is saying, and I’ll just fall apart because it is so clear and so true,” Levels responded.

It is no accident that Bernard is simultaneously deeply moved by the body of Baldwin’s work and also a student at the James Baldwin School. For Bernard and her high school peers, Baldwin is far from some deceased American literary figure whose name is plastered on the school’s façade. Rather, their being at the school is borne of a fundamental appreciation of the man, author and activist shared by the faculty.

As James Baldwin School Principal and Co-Director Elijah Hawkes explained, Baldwin’s importance to the staff “inspires us, and therefore we try to transmit that same understanding, reverence and inspiration on the part of the students.” But “it is not blind reverence,” Hawkes stressed, “it’s an understanding of Baldwin and all of his complexities. That’s what makes him human—that’s what makes any of us human—and that’s why we’re so privileged to have this play here tonight, because it will reveal him in more of his human dimensions than you can get just from an essay or a book.”

Baldwin’s relationship with this country is one of the complexities that was presented in “Mountaintop” and discussed during the panel discussion. In the play, Baldwin, channeled through Levels, waxes rhapsodically about his time in Paris and his decision to move to France. He tells the audience he felt at home in Paris and that “for the first time in my life, I felt like a human being.”

But while Baldwin reveled in his life in Paris (“It gave him his authentic self,” Weinstein told the audience), back home in the U.S., he was labeled unpatriotic. Daniel Baldwin sought to lay to rest this misconception about his uncle.

“Jimmy was running from persecution” in this country, Daniel pointed out. It was self-examination and the search for perspective, not disloyalty to his birth country, that led Baldwin to cross the Atlantic. “We all go away sometimes to find clarity,” Daniel continued, “whether for a walk, to stick our heads in the sand or to travel abroad.” Baldwin’s brother George agreed. “If Jimmy hadn’t left New York, he would have gone crazy. It was better for him to find himself by leaving.”

At all times, however, Baldwin still loved his country. It was thus both “tragic and wonderful,” Weinstein said, when Baldwin was named a Commander of the French Legion of Honor in 1986, “because it was France who gave him [such an honorary title], not the U.S.”

This emphasis on self-examination is something Baldwin saw not only as vital on the individual level but on a national level as well. He felt his country was in need of serious self-examination throughout his lifetime, and the panel left the impression that there is no doubt he would prescribe the same antidote in the face of today’s social and political conflicts.

Earlier in the evening, Hawkes imagined how Baldwin might view the war in Iraq were he alive in 2007. “Baldwin would help us see things more clearly,” Hawkes posited. As to whether the United States was winning the war, Hawkes believed Baldwin would know where to find the answer. “I bet he would ask the soldiers what they think.”

© 2006 Community Media, LLC


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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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