Out in the



"Levels' production is a creative approach to capturing the heart and essence of all Baldwin desired as a writer..."






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."


Out in the Mountains


November 11, 2004


Mountain High:

Calvin Levels Ascends

James Baldwin's Heights


by Kevin McAteer


      "The truth about the past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, have never demanded from it what it has to give." - James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son.
James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop, a one-man play performed by Tony Award nominee Calvin Levels, tells the rich and complex story of James Baldwin's life. Baldwin, one of America's greatest 20th century writers, was an out gay African American whose collected works range from charged political essays to engaging fiction.
     Baldwin addressed the intersections of race, sexuality, and class at a time when few others took such risks.
Giovanni's Room - published in 1956 by a British company after being refused by several American publishers - is central to the gay canon and often featured on the syllabi of lesbian and gay literature courses.
Down from the Mountaintop, performed last month in the Billings Center at the University of Vermont, was one of the many highlights of the University Of Vermont's National Coming Out Week 2004 programming. As did Baldwin’s own writing, Levels' dramatic adaptation and passionate performance demanded from the audience a serious consideration of all that the life of Baldwin has to offer - both for its historical truth and its applicability to the current political and social climate.
     The play offers an ethereal representation of Baldwin as he visits the Broadway stage where a performance about his life is about to take place. As the actor who will portray him waits backstage, Baldwin tells us he would like us to hear the truth about his life directly from the source. As the story of Baldwin’s life unravels, Levels' production makes use of an accompanying slide show and framed photographs as part of an otherwise simple living-room set design. The slides and photos serve as visual introductions of individuals who influenced Baldwin: Baldwin's father, writer Richard Wright, artist Beauford Delaney, and Lucien Happersberger, Baldwin's closest friend and lover.
     One of the earliest influences on Baldwin was the church. He became a preacher at age 14. Growing up in Harlem in the 1930s, Baldwin took what the church offered: an alternative to a working life - subject to rampant prejudice - or a life of crime. In
The Fire Next Time, Baldwin admits that it was his "good luck" that he found himself in "the church racket instead of some other," for "being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked."
In Down from the Mountaintop 'Baldwin' proclaims that as a preacher, "I was the greatest actor in the world!" I realized I was watching an actor playing a historical figure who was anticipating an actor to follow him to portray the story of his life. This staging of Baldwin's story raises questions about how Baldwin may have used the methods of acting during other times in his life both to survive the discrimination he faced and to point out the shortcomings of the societies and classes in which he traveled.
     Levels' Baldwin continues his story by reading highlights from selected works including
Go Tell It on the Mountain (his first novel), Giovanni's Room, Blues for Mister Charlie (a play written in response to the murder of Emmitt Till), and his last work of fiction, Just Above My Head. He also shares gossip about his tenacious relationships with other writers such as Norman Mailer and Lorraine Hansberry, and activists Martin Luther King and Malcom X. The writer's network could be exhausting, not so much because of the impressiveness of the list, but by the high level of emotional investment Baldwin made with each of these individuals. Levels captures this emotional intensity not only in his onstage impersonation of Baldwin but also in the thoughtful writing of Down from the Mountaintop, which reflects the stylistic integrity of Baldwin: clean writing done with an unquestionable passion.
     Levels used creative license to insert contemporary political commentary into the play noting the war in Iraq. His inclusion of a contemporary issue illustrates the timelessness of Baldwin's writing and its relevance to our own ability to address some of the problems Baldwin had attempted to resolve during his lifetime.
Down from the Mountaintop ends with a hopeful plea from Baldwin expressing his desire that "somewhere they will use something I left behind. And if they do that, I've accomplished something." There remains a tremendous amount for all of us to learn from what Baldwin has left behind. Levels' production is a creative approach to capturing the heart and essence of all Baldwin desired as a writer, which was not just to write, "but to disturb the peace."
This review is of a Burlington, VT performance.


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