USC Trojan Horse 


"Calvin Levels'  brainchild 

is truly a work of art..." 






LA Watts Times



"...a pleasing, must-see

theater experience."


USC Trojan Horse

November 25, 2003

by Wes Gerald


                    Playwright possessed by spirit of Baldwin

During the American Civil Rights Movement of the last century, countless men and women raised their voices in protest, boldly declaring that they would no longer be judged by their skin. One of the loudest and most eloquent of those voices was author and activist James Baldwin. Born in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, Baldwin grew up to write novels that captured the voice and spirit of not only blacks but all Americans. He wrote and lived with the same style, one of honesty and earnest passion. In 1987, Baldwin died of cancer, and the world was robbed of his literary light.


James Baldwin may be deceased, but an actor named Calvin Levels is determined to see his spirit live on. Levels, who has been nominated for a Tony award, was so inspired by Baldwin's legacy that he wrote the one-man play “James Baldwin: Down From the Mountaintop.”


“I was sitting in my living room, and Jimmy's spirit touched me,” he said. “I knew I had to write this play.”


The play begins with the stage lights coming up on a nervous actor, played by Levels, preparing to tackle the role of James Baldwin. In a last-ditch effort to find some inspiration, the actor performs a séance to conjure Baldwin's spirit. The actor passes out, and when he awakens he is no longer himself; he is James Baldwin brought back from the dead.


Levels, fully transformed into Baldwin, greets the crowd and begins to tell his life story. What follows is not a glossed-over account or any attempt to make Baldwin into a hero. It is a raw, truthful, gritty portrayal of a man who was, above all things, intensely human with all the flaws and foibles that entails. As he recounts his youth, Baldwin tells of the struggles he had growing up with an abusive stepfather who belittled him and stifled his ambitions at every turn. As Baldwin speaks towards a shining stage light symbolizing his father, he shouts through tears, “Look here, motherfucker! Don't you tell me what I can and cannot do!” It was that attitude of defiance and determination that would color the story of Baldwin's life.


Every piece of that life is laid bare in this play, from his feuds with contemporary authors such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer to Baldwin's own homosexuality, which is discussed in an honest manner that the real James Baldwin would have surely been proud of. Baldwin describes how his novel Giovanni's Room told the story of a love triangle between two men and a woman. Publishers at the time rejected the book due to its homosexual elements. Baldwin sneered at this notion and said, “It wasn't about homosexuality! It was about what happens when you are so afraid that finally you can't love anymore.”


As Baldwin speaks of his own death, he begins to lecture, to deliver a sermon to the audience on the experiences he has gained from ascension to the mountaintop, which is the only part of the play that seems in any way heavy-handed. Before the spirit of James Baldwin departs for the afterlife again, he reminds the audience that the role of the writer is not to write but to disturb the peace.


Down From the Mountaintop recently ended an enormously successful run at the Elephant Asylum Theatre in Hollywood, and the public relations director for the production, Carol Barbieri, hopes to bring the show to other venues, possibly even USC. Calvin Levels' brainchild is truly a work of art that not only displays his own skill but truly reignites the spirit of James Baldwin.



This review is of a Hollywood, California

production with David Moses as director.


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