James Baldwin was born 90 years ago, and Harlem and the wider world have never been the same. As part of a year-long celebration of the impact of the life and writings of James Badwin, Harlem Stage commissioned Carl Hancock Rux to write a piece that would imagine a meeting between Mr. Baldwin and Dinah Washington at the legendary Lenox Lounge.
The result of Mr. Rux's creative machinations is "Stranger On Earth." The title of the piece is drawn from a song that Dinah Washington sang as one of her signature numbers. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Rux made it clear that he was not seeking to impersonate James Baldwin, nor was Marcelle Davies-Lashley seeking to channel Dinah Washington's unique vocal style. In each case, the poet/playwright and the singer were seeking to build a bridge to the spirits of Baldwin and Washington and to present those ghosts to the assembled crowd at the World Premiere event in the majestic Gatehouse performance space.
The setting of this mythic meeting was 1963, a year of turmoil in the history of race relations. Mr. Rux sat at a table reading word of Mr. Baldwin, drawn primarily from letters and from "The Fire Next Time" and "Notes of a Native Son." Interspersed among Baldwin's words and Mr. Rux's commentary, prose and poetry, Ms. Davies-Lashley offered her own interpretation of songs that Dinah Washington might have sung in that last year of her life in performing at the Lenox Lounge. She was ably supported by the combo of Ted Cruz on piano and Mimi Jones on bass.
The recurring motif of the evening was one of building bridges. Bridge from 1963 to 2015 - Bridges from Harlem's past to its present and future - Bridges between music and literary expressions of truth. Yen Moon Directed this piece, which was enhanced by Onome Ekeh's subtle and evocative video images that were projected onto the back wall and ran continuously throughout the piece. Stylized images of familiar Harlem scenes and sights flashed by to enhance the words and notes being projected towards the audience.
The most poignant moment of the evening came when Ms. Davies-Lashley offered Ms. Washington's mournful song, "Willow Weep," as Mr. Rux added soft commentary. At one point, he appeared to truly be functioning as a living and breathing bridge as he blurted out "I can't breathe," as tears coursed down his cheeks. We were being offered a bridge that linked Selma and Birmingham of 1963 with Staten Island of 2014.
Unknown to the artists performing for us at the Gatehouse, they were helping to solidify a bridge of understanding that Mr. Baldwin had built for me beginning in 1963. Growing up in an almost entirely lily white suburb north of Boston, I knew little of racism or racial tensions. That blindness began to change when images of Birmingham's Police Chief Bull Connor intruded onto my TV screen on the nightly news. The next day, my friend, Bill Poole, an African-American student at my prep school, would answer my questions about his hometown of Birmingham. Beginning with my reading of "The Fire Next Time," James Baldwin's view of the world began to expand my own understanding and sensibilities. Subsequently, I read everything that he published as soon as the new volume was available. I was indeed living in "Another Country." So, in a strong sense, the evening of "Stranger On Earth" represented a coming home to Harlem for this Bostonian.
Carl Hancock Rux
"Stranger On Earth"
The evening was made even more special by the presence of members of Mr. Baldwin's extended family, I shared a fascinating conversation with the widow of Mr. Baldwin's uncle.
Stylistically, I would wish for a little more structure at the beginning of this minimalist piece, but I quibble. The piece is haunting in its evocation of ghostly voices that still have something to say to us. It is my hope that they may have another life after this successful short run at Harlem Stage.
The celebration of Baldwin's life and work continues. Consult the link to the Harlem Stage website below to find information on future events.
Harlem Stage Website