America: Pro or Con?

Debate and democracy in “1776” and “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge.”

As long as we’ve had democracy, we’ve needed argument to make it work. Those long-ago Athenians voted only after discussion in the Assembly; democratic theory has always held that good choices emerge from intellectual combat. So, it’s relevant to ask—how is that going? In two current shows in New York, the theatre weighs in on the usefulness of political argument: a deliberately astringent Broadway staging of the musical “1776” looks askance at our nation’s founding conversation, and the Off Broadway play “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge” makes the whole confrontational mechanism of debate seem suspect. In both, we watch as crucial issues—in a way, the same issue—are erased and avoided by rhetoric. Persuasion feels impossible, and the public dialogue sounds corrupt. At least the language sings.

It’s a tricky thing to revive Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1969 musical, which originally starred a congress of white guys (surely the appropriate collective noun) in breeches. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Dickinson, et al. hector one another in sweaty Philadelphia over whether to declare independence, and the climax—a victory of compromise over ideals—comes when Jefferson is persuaded to remove a condemnation of slavery from the Declaration. (Dramatically, that peak is a dud; historically, it could hardly matter more.) Only two women get to say anything at all: Abigail Adams, who writes to her husband to keep his spirits up, and Martha Jefferson, who inspires her husband’s, ah, quill. There’s enough nostalgic love for the show (the 1972 movie was shown in U.S. history classes for a while) that many in the theatre have wanted to “solve” it. A color-blind, modern-dress 2016 Encores! productionroused affections but also stumbled over conceptual problems created by, for instance, a Black actress playing Martha. The Sally Hemings issue, literally, cannot stop cropping up.

The directors of the current version, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page (who is also the show’s choreographer), address the musical’s awkward optics and gender inequities by casting it with a diverse group of female, nonbinary, and trans performers, in addition to adding some stern looks whenever the hypocrisy—Jefferson talking about equality—gets too much. Crystal Lucas-Perry plays Adams with a rueful sense of command, sighing, “By God, I have had thisCongress,” with a complex expression of weariness; this attitude is how the production, per Paulus, intends to “hold history as a predicament versus a confirming myth.” A predicament it certainly is, particularly since the production at the American Airlines Theatre—accidentally?—suggests that even changing the makeup of our governing body results in the same injustices, the same horse-trading and moral capitulation. Otherwise, the adjustments to the underlying musical seem modest: arrangements for some songs emphasize the choral; one of the dorkier numbers (“The Egg”) now rocks out; and the creators have added lines from a real Abigail Adams letter in which she admonishes John to “remember the ladies.” The casting causes some quite lovely musical changes, too—for instance, Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel) and John’s duets, reset for two women’s voices, are newly lush and gracious.

The creative team is using a cross between the strategies of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which famously cast white Founding Fathers with Black and brown performers, and Daniel Fish’s realist staging of “Oklahoma!,” in which characters registered the violence in the script and slowed the show’s tempo, dampening the general state-founding glee. Crucially, though, the Edwards-Stone musical hasn’t got the same bones as these two musical-theatre landmarks. “Hamilton” was applying its diversifying methods to every part of itself, including its creation and sound; in “Oklahoma!,” the source material already contained a rich vein of doubt about cowboy ethics. How do these two techniques—recasting and ironizing—deal with “1776”? Well, when it comes to casting as critique, our own power to suspend disbelief takes over after only a few minutes. Spend only a scene with Patrena Murray as Ben Franklin and you adjust, so the subversion of the actor’s identity quickly subsides. As for the stern looks, the more annoyed the company grows, the stranger it gets. A tart glance is one thing, but long glares at the audience, performed by the ensemble, can turn unintentionally funny. They seem so mad about performing this show they chose to do!

The directors come ready to dismantle and deconstruct, but the show hampers them, initially, by being too floppy to use in battle: “1776” has a very silly first act, which alternates between bluff, talky exchanges and wacky songs, meant to keep us entertained. The act ends with a postcoital Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy) singing, suggestively, “He Plays the Violin,” which is just not the sort of thing you can maintain a Brechtian attitude about—not even if you have Jen Schriever make the lighting very stark and Scott Pask make the faded-curtain set very glum. It should be a freewheeling scene, particularly since LeCroy has a huge voice, built for light opera, capable of stunning acrobatics. Paulus and Page cannot pivot from their insistent solemnity to address this type of goofiness, though, so they squash all the jokes. These first-act moments wind up being neither politically lacerating (it’s still a sex song about a violin!) nor fun.

The production gets onto firmer ground in the more substantial second half, and the musical reaches a peak with “Molasses to Rum,” a furious indictment of Northern hypocrisy sung stirringly by Sara Porkalob. Concealed beneath its frock coat, the latter part of the musical is very angry, and this is the fuse that catches light from the ensemble’s obvious sense of mission. Stone put a lot of good analysis into the book: that slavery was the rotten board that would sink the ship, that women had been forgotten because they weren’t in the chamber while Revolutionary soldiers could be forgotten even when they were. A courier from George Washington’s desperate front lines channels a dead boy: “Momma, hey, Momma, come lookin’ for me.” The anthem is performed by Salome B. Smith, who sings the walls down and, by the way, provides the production’s finest argument. Stern looks do not get us very far politically or artistically, but the show’s musical high points still have power: they get the signatures; they rally the troops; they ring the bell.

Meanwhile, downtown at the Public Theatre, we find ourselves at a high-tide point for James Baldwin’s voice in the theatre: “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge” is actually one of two productions this season that uses the language of his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the Cambridge Union as its text. (The other is by the group american vicarious.) This spring, the Vineyard mounted “Lessons in Survival: 1971,” also a verbatim Baldwin experience, that time a sprawling chat with the poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. It’s little wonder theatre-makers are flocking to Baldwin. The tenor of his speech is both thrilling and operatic: his level of expression is so intoxicatingly high that it convinces you, for a moment, that this is what the American conversation sounds like.

The elegant Elevator Repair Service production, a swift sixty-minute show directed by John Collins, sticks mostly to the record of the event itself. First, two undergraduates from the Union’s debating society (Gavin Price and Christopher-Rashee Stevenson) propose and oppose the motion “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Then, standing at a simple lectern, Baldwin (Greig Sargeant, who conceived the production) argues in the affirmative, pointing to the ruination of both Black and white America at the hands of white supremacy. Speaking in the days after unrest in Alabama, he says, “Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. . . . Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.”

Baldwin’s words are beautiful, infuriated, hypnotic, heartbroken. But, when Buckley (Ben Jalosa Williams) takes his turn, it’s as if he hasn’t heard even one. Buckley is greatly offended by Baldwin’s essays in “The Fire Next Time,” and he bridles, theatrically, at their claims. His only direct response to the torrent of Baldwin’s actual speech is a sneering joke about Baldwin affecting an English accent. In his address, Buckley plays the “sober man,” cautioning against Baldwin’s positions, depressing and deflating where he can. He allows his unflappable gentlemanly mask to slip, though, at the last moment. He closes with naked threats. “Under no circumstances must America be addressed and told that the only alternative to the status quo is to overthrow that civilization which we consider to be the faith of our fathers,” he rails, using reactionary phrases that sound frighteningly recent and familiar.

Calling what these four men are doing a “debate” is misleading. Despite their eloquence, they all talk past one another, never agreeing on common terms, ultimately addressing themselves to different questions. This unlistening quality is, in its way, even bleaker than the nearly three hours of “1776.” At least in the musical, the Second Continental Congress can hear and respond to one another. In this event—taken directly from the record—no one seems to be listening at all.

Williams does a very clever job of letting Buckley’s exaggerated accent and gestures touch his impersonation in only a few moments—he knows just when to brush his portrait of the man with acid. Sargeant, on the other hand, is magnetic throughout. You cannot look away from him; you sense he is giving the performance of his life. A delicate coda involves a short, debriefing chat with a laughing Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines) and then Gaines’s and Sargeant’s own accounts of how they came to work with Elevator Repair Service. The group was doing a Faulkner play, and white actors were playing the Black characters. “That’s how we met,” Sargeant says to Gaines—or possibly the audience at the Public Theatre. “We were brought in to be the Black people, and here we are.” The lights in the house get very bright. There seems to be one pointed at every single seat in the room. Brought in by whom? It’s as swift and devastating a rhetorical ploy as anything that has gone before

All Rights Reserved for Helen Shaw 

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