IN Magazine

September 8, 2003

James Baldwin & Calvin Levels:

Making Love OnStage

by Michael Kearns

“Two or three weeks before Martin Luther King was killed, I was at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills with Jimmy Baldwin and Marlon Brando”, David Moses remembers. “Jimmy was in Palm Springs on the day King was killed. I called him there immediately. I said ‘Jimmy, they got Martin.’ There was an incredible silence. Then sighs. This was like taking a piece of candy from a kid.” The year was 1968.


When Moses went to see James Baldwin - Down From The Mountaintop, written and performed by Calvin Levels, he had no idea this real-life moment would be portrayed in the solo tribute. He also had no idea that Levels had actually been looking for him. As Moses relished Levels portrayal of his friend, laughing more knowingly than anyone else in the audience, he sensed there was someone out there who knew more than the average theatergoer in the house that night. If

I didn’t know Norman Mailer was so devoutly macho,” Levels as Baldwin says, “I would have thought he had a thing for me the way he used to flatter me.”


“Marlon was a real beautiful cat,” he teases, “and he gave me the feeling that reports that I was ugly had been very much exaggerated.” Capturing Baldwin’s vocal energy and most of all, his spirit, Levels insists, “Truman Capote wanted people to believe that I was wooing him when indeed the opposite was true.” These are merely a few of the juicy tidbits that comprise the complex portrait of one of our most luminous artists. Not only did Baldwin fight prejudice and bigotry as both gay and a man of color at a time when being a queer and being black was a lethal combination -- he managed to triumph over potentially paralyzing adversity, spinning his life and career into a golden manifesto for anyone who dares to shine uncompromisingly.


Calvin Levels, who will revive Baldwin in the second version of James Baldwin - Down From The Mountaintop, opening Sept. 7 at the Asylum Elephant Theatre, did not consider himself a fan until very recently. “I first heard of him when I was a teenager, doing theatre in Cleveland, Ohio,” Levels remembers. “There was a production of Amen Corner and I was very taken by it. We hadn’t been taught anything about Baldwin in school. When I was in my twenties. I picked up a couple of his novels. I appreciated the work, but I must say that I didn’t really get it.”


Flash forward to an occurrence that would marry Levels to Baldwin, “I was sitting in my reading chair,” Levels relates, “and I was touched by Baldwin’s spirit. A voice said, ‘Write a play about James Baldwin.’ I went to the library and got my hands on as many books as I could check out. I read from early morning until late at night, and that’s when I became nuts about Baldwin. I had recognized him as an artist and a great human being, but I wasn’t an enormous fan until I started doing the research.”


Levels initially performed James Baldwin - Down From The Mountaintop, in which the actor-writer conjures aspects of the artist, at the Village Theatre in Leimert Park. In the show’s second incarnation, the actor’s heightened desire to let audiences see “what Baldwin has done for me” has resulted in some subtle shifts. Levels has taken Baldwin’s message - "Be who you are” - and imprinted it on his soul, emblazoned it on his heart. “Baldwin taught me to allow my light to shine, no matter what,” Levels said.  Instead of having a fictitious actor backstage at a New York theatre preparing to go onstage as Baldwin, Levels has allowed personal experience, if not outright autobiography, to influence his rewrites. It’s Calvin Levels backstage and it is Levels who is visited by the spirit of James Baldwin, the hook for the unfolding drama as well as a metaphor for what happened in the actor’s life.


When Levels performed an excerpt from his solo show at the Lammy Awards last spring, there was no question that he was embodying Baldwin. A room full of writers in varying states of self-obsession stopped; no clinking sounds of utensils, no one bounding off to the bathroom. It was as if every member of the 500-plus audience was holding their breath as Levels/Baldwin carried on, summoning a kaleidoscope of emotions, melting into each other with uninhibited abandon.


Describing his agent’s reaction to Giovanni’s Room, Levels as Baldwin says, “My agent told me that it would ruin me as the leading young black American writer and that I should burn the manuscript because the love affair at the center of the novel was, in her words, ‘of a homo­sexual nature.’ I hate labels. I try my best to never use them. She warned me that no one would touch it unless I toned down the homosexuality, bisexuality or whatever you want to call it. Well, that was quite impossible.”


He then mesmerized the audience by reading, delicately but deliberately, an excerpt from the novel, followed by his personal vindication: “The rest is history. Giovanni became a huge success. So much for listening to other people... No matter who was looking over my shoulder, I just let it all hang out. To me, that’s the definition of being a man and not a nigger.”


Levels has also brought his first choice as director, David Moses, to the current production. He had been looking for the very David Moses who had seen the earlier production. “It was divine providence,” Moses says. I met Jimmy in 1962. I was stationed in the military in Van Nuys. Virginia Capers would have these theatrical gatherings at her apartment on Franklin and I’d come up from the base. He was wearing his Army uniform when he met Baldwin at one of the actress’s parties and they spent the evening “in a corner of the apartment, engaged.” Baldwin asked him to go out for drinks at Diamond Jim’s on Hollywood Boulevard. “It was a star hangout.” Moses says, “but not a starry night. It was, however, the beginning of our friendship.”


“He fell in love with me and I loved him, but I was frightened of the sexual thing,” Moses says. “Jimmy was more concerned with the friendship than the sexuality. He said, ‘Don’t worry about this. You’re an actor and I’m a writer - we’ll make love onstage.”

And they did. With Moses’ wife Sharon in the audience, Moses performed “Sonny’s Blues,” an excerpt from Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man, at Carnegie Hall. Directed by the author, the piece was juxtaposed with a Ray Charles musical performance that heightened the narrative. Of Baldwin, Moses says, “He was the most extraordinary human being in the world. I was cutting his hair one day (I was the only person he’d let cut his hair) and he said, ‘Who is anybody to tell anybody else who to love? Love is so rare. Love is like mercury. If it’s slippery at best, why are we adding obstructions? It’s the only prize worth having.”


More than anything else, he believed in love. Love insists that you come to terms with the truth and tell it. The telling of it turns out to be the gift that he had. It’s the truth that Levels is determined to share with his audiences. “Calvin is an extraordinary vessel to remind people of who was in our midst,” Moses says. “His art rose to become a voice that no one has duplicated to this day.”


David Ehrenstein, the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, concurs. “Baldwin was a ‘public intellectual’ - a literary citizen/statesman, he says. “There used to be scores of them. Now Gore Vidal stands as the last of a dying breed. But Baldwin had an advantage over Vidal in that he was a romantic. That’s why Giovanni’s Room was able to touch readers who have never so much as considered same-sex love. I often wonder what he’d think of what’s going on today. Much would amuse him, much would horrify him, and he would bear witness to it all.”

Ultimately, it’s the truth that Baldwin witnessed and told. According to Moses, “You can’t challenge the truth. It sits out there like a hard-on.”


James Baldwin - Down From the Mountaintop, a new one-man play written and performed by Tony Award nominee Calvin Levels opens Sept. 7 and runs through Oct. 26 at The Elephant Asylum Theater, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood playing Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25. For reservations and information call (323) 93-59058, or email


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