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."

IN Magazine

January 27, 2003

by Greg Owen  


As the lights dim in the Village Theatre for James Baldwin: Down From the Mountaintop, the recorded voice of the late great writer floats from the stage. Precise and slightly nasal, it carries an air of culture and authority. Most people, Baldwin pronounces, live in total darkness, and it’s the artist’s responsibility to light the way for them. It is, in fact, their destiny. With this ethereal prologue, the writer and performer of this “autobiographical” one-man show, Calvin Levels, sets the bar high, and succeeds wonderfully in lighting the way into the mind of a fascinating figure at the crossroads of civil rights, gay liberation, and American arts and letters.


Like so many of the characters in his work, Down From the Mountaintop is a depiction of Baldwin’s own struggle with racial, sexual, and national identity. Directed by Art Evans with a light touch, Levels begins his performance by channeling Baldwin’s spirit in order to get through the evening’s show, and with a clap of thunder the handsome actor is imbued with Baldwin’s languorous manner and large eyes, replete with a scotch in one hand and cigarette in the other. In chronological order he recounts his life from a childhood in Harlem to his death in the south of France in 1987, all in an effort to “set the record straight.”


Baldwin was as much admired for his lyrical prose as he was attacked for its content, and Levels veers between an honest appraisal of the sources of Baldwin’s genius and thin-skinned attacks on those who would question his talents. While he casts off the critics’ appraisal of the importance of his Pentecostal upbringing as rubbish, he recalls his time as a fiery teenage preacher when he renounced movies and theatre as “tools of the devil.” And though he boasts that as a child he’d read every great book of American literature that the 135th Street Library had to offer, he contends that it was the speech patterns and cadences of Harlem that really influenced his style. Baldwin liked to have it both ways and then some.


Early on, Baldwin learned that provocation was a handy tool for an artist looking to make a name for himself, and his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room was a case in point. Levels stands indignant at the critics’ focus on the homosexual aspect of the story and the effects of being too afraid to love anyone, but his satisfaction at the attention bubbles sublimely below the surface. When asked by his publisher to tone down the gay stuff he curtly replies, “Fuck you.”


As portrayed by Levels, Baldwin is a notorious name dropper, and he did in fact run and feud with some of the great artists of his day. Truman Capote was “an imp” who was in love with him, and Baldwin’s rebuff may explain Capote’s exquisite putdown of his work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” We’re treated to a hustle involving Marlon Brando, drinking binges with Tennessee Williams, and a rant about Norman Mailer, Baldwin’s macho polar opposite, who thought the gracious young black man “too charming to be a great writer.”


In stark contrast to these petty animosities, Baldwin’s first trip to the South in the early days of the civil-rights movement affected him profoundly, and here Levels comes as close as Baldwin will allow him to exposing the man beneath the artist. The sight of Atlanta’s “blood red soil” shatters the carefully constructed facade, and 300 years of injustice come crashing down on his shoulders. At this moment it seems James Baldwin really is in the house, possessed by greatness and destined to light the way.



This review is of a Los Angeles, California

production with Art Evans as director.



THE PLAYTHE_PLAY.htmlTHE_PLAY.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0
PRINT / RADIOPRINT___RADIO.htmlPRINT___RADIO.htmlshapeimage_5_link_0