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Lessons in Survival: 1971

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 9, 2022

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Crystal Dickinson
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Two weeks ago, London opened its newest entertainment attraction: ABBA Voyage, a concert featuring "ABBAtars," or digital versions of members of the Swedish pop-singing group as they appeared in 1977. Onstage at the Vineyard Theatre in Union Square, audiences can catch a similar display of wizardry with the physical manifestation of Black literary super troupers James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. Lessons in Survival: 1971 re-creates a television talk show from more than fifty years ago, but the evening throbs with intellectual intensity, political urgency, and striking theatricality. It is a highly impressive magic act without an over reliance on cutting-edge technology.

In the fall of 1971, Giovanni interviewed Baldwin for a television program called "SOUL!," which was dubbed the "Black Tonight Show." Produced by Ellis Haizlip, the two-part, two-hour conversation was filmed in London (because Baldwin refused to return to the United States) and was broadcast on PBS in December 1971. The interview takes place in a television studio, and the writers are seated in office chairs throughout. The rest of the set consists of a round coffee table with a prominent crystal ashtray (which practically overflows with cigarette butts by the end of the show). The video establishes intimacy by providing close-ups of the subjects' faces and periodic shots of their expressive hands.

Lessons in Survival: 1971, which was created with The Commissary and co-conceived by Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas, and Reggie D. White, re-imagines the context of the interview but retains (most of) the conversation verbatim, including all of the "uhs," "ums," "you knows," and an occasional sneeze. Set in a sunken living room (magnificently designed by You-Shin Chen) with shag carpeting, papaya-orange couches, and a coffee table complete with a faithful reproduction of the large crystal ashtray (also overflowing by the end), the play begins with the entrance of the two performers, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Crystal Dickinson. They take up the audio devices lying on the sofa and put in the ear pieces, presumably to channel Baldwin and Giovanni.

We first hear the authentic voices of the writers from a recording of the original interview (thanks to Lee Kinney's excellent sound design) and are immediately thrust back to 1971. In a miraculous and impeccable auditory transition, Clemons-Hopkins and Dickinson assume the vocal cadence, timbre, and inflection of their real-life counterparts.

Both Dickinson and Clemons-Hopkins are splendid and truly captivating. They do not look very much like the actual interviewer and interviewee, and they do not try to visually impersonate Giovanni and Baldwin (Mike Eubanks's costumes are effectively and deliberately anachronistic), but they eerily capture their essences.

At the beginning of the interview, Giovanni is deferential to the avuncular Baldwin, who discusses his works and candidly describes his relationship with his abusive father and dependent eight siblings. They address the charged political climate of the late-1960s and early-1970s, and Giovanni references the disparity in their ages (she was 28 at the time, and he was 47). Initially, there is a certain amount of formality in the conversation as Giovanni, sitting a fair distance across from Baldwin, leans into and absorbs his erudite and theoretical explanations of what it means to be Black in America.

Under the excellent and unobtrusive direction of Thomas, the mood gradually shifts. The chain-smoking duo become visibly more comfortable with each other, and their comportment subtly and progressively changes. Giovanni takes off her shoes, eats an orange, and nonchalantly perches on top of the couch. Baldwin eventually takes off his shoes and socks, helps himself to brandy, and lounges on the floor. (Of course, none of this blocking is in the original show.)

As the interview goes on, though, Giovanni also becomes more and more outspoken (yet still respectful) with her mentor, and this is reflected in the production's staging and design elements. During a heated discussion about relationships between Black men and women, for example, the warm lighting becomes cold and harsh (kudos to Amith Chandrashaker), and Giovanni stalks the periphery of the living-room set. She explains that Black men, like revolutionary Huey Newton, can only be with white women, and Baldwin is defensive and reduced to a series of "But Nikki-," "But Nikki-." The effect is simultaneously incisive and liberating.

Occasionally, fragments of the original interview creep in, and there are moments in which the past and present signals mix in a manner similar to the appearance of ghost-like images from another television channel. (People who watched television in the 1970s would appreciate the phenomenon.) There is, for instance, a fleeting projected image of hands touching from the PBS video and there are sputtering sounds of the show's audio. For a short time, the living room set seems to be floating in a sea of television static. (Josaih Davis deserves credit for the outstanding video and projections.) The point is clear: the past is always tightly imbricated within the present.

The conversation remains (tragically) as relevant today as it was in 1971. Comments about noted educator and activist Angela Davis coming under legal fire takes on new resonance amid contemporary calls to suppress teaching about racism along with efforts to ban books about race and sexuality. As Baldwin reminds us, "A teacher who is not free to teach is not a teacher." Later, he says, "No tyrant in history was able to read. But every single one of them burned the books."

Throughout the evening Giovanni and Baldwin circle around and grapple with the fraught topics of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia in America. They are at odds as to how to snap the seemingly unbreakable cycle that perpetuates their existence. Giovanni argues that change can occur, but Baldwin is more realistic. Intolerance seems to part of our DNA. He tells her, "People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented Black people to give white people identity." And adds, "Cats who think of themselves as straight invent" gay people. "So, they can sleep with them."

Near the end of the evening, Giovanni underscores the importance of poetry, fiction, and activist writing as a means to bring people together and effect positive change. Citing scripture, she says, "The word was made flesh and dwelt among us." Indeed, Lessons in Survival: 1971 does not need holograms and avatars to breathe palpable new life into the thoughts, ideas, and utterances of these two literary giants.

Lessons in Survival: 1971
Through June 30, 2022
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Vineyard Theatre