Los Angeles Times

Critic's Choice


“Levels…has a hypnotic power that creates a revival fervor…"






LA Weekly



"...Levels'  intense stage

presence beguiles..."






LA Watts Times



"...a pleasing, must-see

theater experience."

Los Angeles Times

August 13, 2004

Baldwin's legacy in vivid detail

by David C. Nichols


Impressive purpose distinguishes "James Baldwin — Down From the Mountaintop" in its return engagement at the Sunset Millennium (formerly the Tiffany Theater). Writer-performer Calvin Levels' acclaimed solo show evokes the great author-activist in a docudrama that fills in its academic contours with vivid detail.

Opening with Baldwin's recorded voice, Levels sets up his central conceit, in which a young black actor (the selfless Jason Powell), cast as Baldwin and stymied by his assignment, invokes the writer's assistance. To the flashes of Danny Truxaw's subtle lighting, Baldwin (Levels) materializes, returned from the ether to make his case.

Thereafter, "Mountaintop" takes the form of a biographical séance, whose sudden shifts of tone are backed by upstage projections of friends, enemies, colleagues and mentors. Baldwin shares his story, enacting all the participants from his Harlem beginnings to his expatriate end, in a conversation with an audience to whom he relates as though to one person.

The dramatic impetus is narrative-bound, addressing Baldwin's internal conflicts
gingerly at best. This is where Levels' acting takes over. Physically unlike his subject, Levels, nevertheless, has a hypnotic power that creates a revival fervor during his character's diatribes and a pin-drop silence during the Act 1 account of Baldwin's childhood molestation. When he takes on civil rights in Act 2, the political convention-level force is hair-raising, and the synoptic ending is a quiet coup.

Director Charles Burnett provides just enough gloss to frame Levels' artistry, with Jon Oh's sound a decided asset in setting off a message that, like Baldwin's legacy, has never seemed more potent.


This review is of a West Hollywood, California

production with Charles Burnett as director.


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