‘Waiting for Giovanni’ (Photo: Mikiodo)
By Winnie McCroy
Playwright Jewelle Gomez teams up with TOSOS to present Waiting for Giovanni: A Dream Play, a look at the life of James Baldwin. The play follows Baldwin’s crisis of self as he decides to break with the civil rights writers of his time and publish his love story, in spite of the rampant homophobia of the era, possibly jeopardizing his livelihood and reputation in the process.
“In the beginning was the word,” preaches Jimmy Baldwin at the opening, his ‘muse’ Giovanni (Michael Striano) by his side. Jonathan Dewberry as Baldwin reminds one of Samuel L. Jackson before fame puffed him up. He’s ideally suited to this two-act play that has him passionately arguing against his peers and the morays of the time to allow his kind of love story to be told.
Naysayers abound, like fellow writer Richard (Neil Dawson) and the ghost of Baldwin’s daddy, who “ain’t never gonna see past his shadow,” as Baldwin’s younger brother David (Jordan J. Adams) puts it. Richard is tired of Baldwin “explaining the plight of the negro race for the benefit of the white race.” But it’s the words of his father, for whom Jimmy was “too ugly and too smart” that ring in his ears.
But Jimmy has his supporters, including fellow artist Lorraine (a well-cast Joy Sudduth), his tall French lover Luc (Robert Walker Jeffery), and his portly publisher William (Ken Simon), who is at the forefront of the action as he begs Baldwin to finish his latest manuscript, Waiting for Giovanni.
William knows the power words can have, saying, “Why do you think they burn books and libraries? Only the words endure.” But this time, Baldwin has written about a “love that dares us to look at ourselves.” And he is bold enough to suggest that writing about the homosexual love of a person of color is just as much a civil rights issue as anything else.
He wants his fellow writers to understand the intersectionality between gay and civil rights struggles, asking, “Can’t we learn from brothers like Bayard Rustin?” But they can’t see it; Richard replies, “Yeah, I learned not to bend over in the same men’s room as him.” It’s his opinion that “black people don’t want to hear about this pornographic mess.”
During intermission, I told Gomez of my misspent youth as a 20-something lesbian coming to New York City and being schooled by a coterie of well-heeled older gay men. Over drinks at Julius Bar, they’d regale me with stories of running through Greenwich Village with Jimmy, having wild and raucous times until he decamped to France. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that “Jimmy” was James Baldwin.
Gomez and I discussed the sad state of race relations today, some 40 years later, when it seems little has changed for the better. Back then, she said, at least people had the hope that all of the marching and writing and working for civil rights would affect some change.
During Baldwin’s time in France, he was able to step back and make sense of the anger in the world. In the play, the gruesome murder of Emmett Till is what brings Jimmy back to the reality of race relations in America. As he said, “Emmett Till had no voice at all. His skin did all the talking.”
Baldwin’s conflicts over pulling the book from publication scare his publisher, anger his lover, and alienate his friends. But in the end, it’s his own demons he must face. His words bring life from death, and even if he must face angry hordes of villagers wielding pitchforks and torches, Baldwin vows to be true to his muse.
At slightly less than two hours running time, the play moves quickly, and the cast is well up to the task at hand. For fans of Baldwin and his seminal works, those who love a good civil rights play, or anyone seeking a good love story, Waiting for Giovanni will not disappoint.
Waiting for Giovanni
The Flea Theater
20 Thomas Street, NYC
Through August 4
Winnie McCroy is a longtime arts & entertainment writer who lives in Brooklyn with her wife and her giant Rottweiler, Dixie Carter. For more of her reviews, visit winniemccroy.com.