By Jewelle Gomez in collaboration with Harry Waters, Jr.
Directed by Mark Finley
Produced by TOSOS—The Other Side of Silence
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.4.18
The Flea, 20 Thomas Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 7.15.18
Michael Striano and Jonathan Dewberry in Waiting for Giovanni. Photo by Mikiodo.
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliantly imagined look at the impact of racial discord on James Baldwin as he completes his second novel, Giovanni's Room.
When James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, was published in 1953, it was greeted with near-universal praise. By that point, Baldwin was fairly well-known as an essayist, poet, playwright, and journalist. Nonetheless, when he sat down to write his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, he found himself mired in a slew of conflicts. First and foremost was theme. Did he, as an African American, have to focus on the plight of his race? Or might he branch out and address the problems and concerns of a more diverse set of characters? And how about love? Could he pen a testament to the richness of gay life, or would it be career suicide to write realistically—positively—about homosexual love?
They were tough questions for Baldwin to parse, but in imagining the writer's inner turmoil, playwright Jewelle Gomez (in collaboration with Harry Waters, Jr.) brings these issues into sharp focus. Throughout the play, Baldwin (played with remarkable intensity and depth by Jonathan Dewberry) interacts with some of the most important writers of the 20th century, among them Richard Wright (Neil Dawson) and Lorraine Hansberry (Joy Sudduth), both of whom had definite ideas about what a writer can and should do. For Wright, race loyalty is the sole imperative, especially given the widespread outrage that had erupted following the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. What’s more, he sees issues of gender and sexuality as unnecessary—perhaps even foolhardy—distractions. Hansberry takes a different tack and encourages Baldwin’s broader vision of human liberation.
But these two aren't the only folks tugging at Baldwin. Also in the mix are his brother David (Jordan J. Adams), who understands that the legacy of paternal abuse continues to reverberate within James, causing him to have endless doubts; his publisher William (Ken Simon) who presents as both a literary cheerleader and a driving taskmaster; his lover Luc (Robert Walker Jeffery); and Giovanni (Michael Striano), a hovering presence who reminds Baldwin that his sexuality is as integral to him as his race. Together, these influential forces illuminate Baldwin’s conflict over whether to even complete Giovanni’s Room, let alone publish it.
Mark Finley has directed a gripping, emotionally resonant production, acted on a virtually bare stage—save for two chairs and one table—that presents Baldwin as humane, deeply introspective, and haunted by insecurities and legitimate worries. After all, what if the magazines he wrote for stopped giving him assignments as punishment for writing a gay-themed book? What if readers and critics hated it?
Ultimately, as we know, Baldwin decided to publish the overtly queer Giovanni’s Room; controversy did erupt, of course, but Baldwin was able to take on his detractors and continue to write and publish. Waiting for Giovanni celebrates Baldwin’s tenacity and prompts audience members to act on their beliefs despite fear of repercussions. In Baldwin’s case, this meant writing the world as he saw it and wished it. “In the beginning was the word,” he says in the play’s opening sequence. “And the word was with God.” Indeed, Baldwin understood that words can change the world—and foment positive social change as well as backlash—if they are used strategically. He chose to use them to celebrate love. We can do worse than to follow his example.
(Waiting for Giovanni plays at the Flea, 20 Thomas Street, through August 4, 2018. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7. Tickets are $30 ($75 for benefit on 8/2) and are available at tososnyc.org.)
Waiting for Giovanni is by Jewelle Gomez, in collaboration with Harry Waters, Jr. Directed by Mark Finley. Set Design by Christina Watanabe. Lighting Design by Jennifer Fok. Sound Design by Morry Campbell. Costume Design by Ben Philipp. Assistant Directors are Zachary Clarence and Federica Morra. Stage Manager is Avery Wrenn.
The cast is Jordan J. Adams, Neil Dawson, Jonathan Dewberry, Robert Walker Jeffery, Ken Simon, Michael Striano, and Joy Sudduth.