The Daily Orange

Syracuse University • Syracuse, NY

February 15, 2006

One-man play explores challenges of homosexuality, racism

by Erin Hendricks

By the time James Baldwin was old enough to hold an ice cream cone, it became clear his skin color would dictate the greatest challenges of his life. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, his eyes were first awakened to this realization when a policeman refused to give him a cone after serving several of his classmates.  "I stood in line watching little girls in front of me, happily placing ice cream cones in their hands. Now when my turn to receive the ice cream cone …" said Baldwin, played by actor Calvin Levels. With one empty fist raised in the air, a wave of anguish spread over Levels' face as he depicted the reality of a discrimination factor that would challenge his social outlook and future path of endurance.
Levels embodied the spirit and message of James Baldwin last night as a part of "Down from the Mountaintop," a solo play written by the actor and sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Outrage and the Black Communications Society. The show's title is based on one of Baldwin's most celebrated works, "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and served to represent one of many campus events sponsored in honor of Black History Month.
A living room setup on a Schine Student Center Underground stage was the only setting needed to delve into the hurdles and successes of a leader remembered for his civil rights activism, ministry and published works.
Levels began his act by addressing the audience directly and detailing the formative, often painful experiences of Baldwin's childhood. Greatly affected by the love of his mother and ridicule of his father, the mix of impressions created by the figures of his youth led to several emotional pauses in Levels' monologue.
During his youth, Baldwin endured what he called "squalid" living conditions, as well as the persistent mockery of a father who referred to him as "frog eyes," he said. "He told me, 'You can't do it, you can't become successful if you write,'" Levels said, trailing off as tears welled in his eyes. "That day I stood up to you and said, don't tell me what I can and can't do. Don't tell me I can't. I'll show you. And I did."
These early experiences served only as an indication for what would follow, since Baldwin's challenges evolved from paternal ridicule into outright verbal and sexual abuse. Levels' voice became strained and quiet as he detailed his first sexual experience, which involved an older man luring him into a bathroom and forcing him into oral sex.
"Part of me said this is wrong, and another part said something else … he got down on his knees and unzipped my trousers," Levels said.
Even as a fiery minister and a novelist, Baldwin's life was influenced at an early age by role models who taught him about the dangers of perpetuating ideals of racial hatred; this bigotry was first introduced by his father. The counseling of painter Beauford Delaney and eventually the living examples of luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X taught Baldwin what it means to love and trust other human beings without reservation, he said.

"It takes great spiritual resistance not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck," Levels said. "Not only must we not hate, but we must teach the hater. We cannot be until they are free."
Living in Paris to avoid the racial strife at home, Baldwin defended the content of his novels - often deemed too provocative for their homosexual themes - in the face of criticism stemming from fellow writers such as Truman Capote, Langston Hughes and publishing companies refusing to print his works. One such work is "Giovanni's Room," which depicts a love triangle between two men and one woman and contains explorative sexual angles, Levels said. Through it all, Baldwin stood by his work and refused to be dominated by the tide of opposition.
"I found discipline, love, luck and most of all endurance," Levels said. "I had to find a way to just write and keep alive."

Syracuse resident Dollica Everett was one of several audience members who described the performance as inspiring, and also yelled out expostulations of praise as Lloyd read excerpts from his novels.
Levels' performance taught important lessons that can be incorporated into daily life, Everett said.
"In spite of all boundaries around you, you can achieve goals and objectives no matter what," Everett said. Her comrade, Syracuse resident Ilene Lewis Lloyd, found direction in Baldwin's determination and writing confidence.
"One of my dreams is to become a writer, and lately I've been put in situations with people who have written something," said Lloyd, who said this week she has become less hesitant to pursue a career in writing. "They have been willing to open themselves up and teach."
Kiana Cornish, president of the Black Communications Society, said the council brought the performance to Syracuse in the hopes everyone in attendance would enjoy a "highly acclaimed" actor. She added "Mountaintop" was a show anyone could relate to regardless of one's background or individual perspectives.
"I think James Baldwin is someone searching for understanding, beauty and truth," said Cornish, a junior communications rhetorical studies and African-American studies major. "Anyone could relate whether you're gay, straight, black or white. It's just about human nature."


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