Lessons in Survival 1971. James Baldwin Talks Race and Writing With Nikki Giovanni

“Lessons in Survival 1971,” running at the Vineyard Theater through June 30, is based on then-28-year-old poet Nikki Giovanni’s interview-turned-conversation with the famous writer James Baldwin, then 47, which was broadcast in 1971 on the WNET television series “SOUL,” described as America’s first Black Tonight Show. But the two-hour conversation (trimmed on stage to 90 intermission-less minutes) is far more intellectual than anything you could have seen on Johnny Carson’s show at the time,  certainly not at this length.

Portrayed by two accomplished actors, Crystal Dickinson (Clybourne Park, Cullud Wattah) and Carl Clemons-Hopkins (who portrays Marcus, the comedian’s CEO, in the HBO Max series “Hacks”), the two writers sit in a sunken living room on bright orange couches, and converse about racism, slavery,  what they agree is the coming inevitable holocaust,  the pressures on Black men (here is one of the few times that Baldwin is directly personal, talking about his father), the writer’s responsibility to himself, police mistreatment of Black people. At one point, Baldwin says of a hypothetical encounter with a cop:  “He may be a very nice man. I haven’t got time to figure that out. You know, all I know, he’s got a uniform…
Giovanni: You believe him
Baldwin:  and a gun. You know, and I have to relate to him that way.
Giovanni: You really do. 
Baldwin That’s the only way to relate to him at all, because one of us is gonna- you know, one of us may have to die. 

Much of the conversation is stimulating, still relevant. Baldwin is intensely quotable. 

“You go through your life for a long time and think that no one has ever suffered the way I have suffered, you know, my God, my God. And then you realize. You read something, you hear something, and you realize that your suffering does not isolate you. That your suffering is your bridge. “

There are parts that are less immediately graspable, the conversation turning abstract/arcane:

“… we’re not obliged to accept the world’s definitions. Just because white people say they white, we’re not obliged to believe it. D’you know? Just because the pope says he’s a Christian, we’re not obliged to believe it. 

Giovanni:  And we’d be crazy if we did
Baldwin: You know. We have to make our own definitions and begin to rule the world that way.

There are also one or two moments that are outright dated. Baldwin makes just one strained reference to homosexuality. The remark doesn’t make clear his own homosexuality, and uses a now-loathed epithet, which reminds us that 1971 was just two years after Stonewall: “Cats who think of themselves as straight invent f…..ts. So, they can sleep with them. without becoming a f…t themselves.” – a comment that makes Giovanni laugh.

“Lessons in Survival 1971” offers a worthwhile conversation, full of important points briefly discussed that deserve – need — elaboration, illustration. Indeed, some of what these two great writers discuss could be – indeed have been – the subject of entire plays. The creative team works at justifying why the conversation as a whole should be presented as a work of theater. Unlike the original broadcast, in which the writers sit on chairs, the actors portraying them on stage move around a lot. There are also deliberately intrusive sound effects and video effects. If anything, ironically, these theatrical intrusions were for me an argument against having turned this 50-year-old exchange into a play,  especially when the original conversation is readily available on YouTube

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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