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Waiting for Giovanni

by Rob Urbinati
Tuesday Jul 24, 2018
Waiting for Giovanni

As a writer, gay black activist and public figure, James Baldwin was frequently interviewed on television. His manner, behavior and speech patterns exist for all to see. Attempting to bring a well-known historical figure to dramatic life can be challenging. If the actor mimics the person's mannerisms, the performance can feel unnatural. If they veer too far from the documentary evidence, audiences may be confused. In "Waiting for Giovanni," Jonathan Dewberry strikes the perfect balance. It's a sly, intense performance that solidly grounds this worthwhile TOSOS production.

Jewelle Gomez's "Waiting for Giovanni," written in collaboration with Harry Waters Jr., is set in New York, Paris and a village in France in the mid-1950s. Jimmy is working on his second novel, "Giovanni's Room," in the midst of violent civil rights upheavals. That Baldwin would dare write about an American man in Paris sexually involved with both another man and a woman rather than directly taking on civil rights forms the central conflict of the play. More troublesome to some is that all three of his characters are white. The writer insists that the nature of love, not homosexuality, is the topic of his work.

Richard Wright, author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy," accuses Baldwin of betraying the cause and wasting his gifts. Jimmy is tormented by the ghost of his tyrannical father, a preacher who calls him "an unholy thing." He quarrels with Giovanni, his muse, and Luc, his French lover, but they also inspire, making him see that desire is worthy of examination. Jimmy is championed by his younger brother David and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who encourage him to write what he feels. As Luc astutely points out, Jimmy "listens to too many voices." Confused, stifled, and deeply conflicted, Baldwin questions the book's worth, and confronting his publisher's rage, he threatens to hold back publication.

"Waiting for Giovanni" begins with Baldwin quoting the Bible: "In the beginning was the word," and from then on, the play is driven by language, through speaking and argument and less through action. Some of the dialogue and interior monologues are naturalistic, but often, Gomez adopts a poetic voice. The quality of the writing is inconsistent, but powerful lyrical passages and forceful dramatic confrontations emerge throughout. The play is a dream-like work of imagination that veers from the facts. It's not a docudrama, and seems to take place inside Baldwin's mind. At times, "Waiting for Giovanni" tiptoes into the realm of hagiography. The audience is put entirely on his side.

Mark Finley's potent, fluid production supports the heightened tone of the script. The simple set design by Christina Watanabe consists of a table and two chairs, rearranged as the scenes flow into each other and characters expressionistically materialize. Like the set, the palette for Ben Philipp's period costumes is monochromatic, punctuated by lighting designer Jennifer Fok's bold, saturated reds and blues. Morry Campbell's sinister sound design permeates the tense action in the second act. Dewberry is given solid support by Joy Sudduth as a wry, compassionate Hansberry, Jordan J. Adams as Jimmy's eager loyal brother, and Neil Dawson, stern and unyielding as both Baldwin's father, and Wright.

The play does not offer a sustained dramatic build; it's more a series of impressionistic scenes and heated arguments culminating in Baldwin's decision to publish his controversial book. Late in the play, Hansberry provides a harrowing description of Emmett Till's mutilated body, asserting that "his skin did all the talking," and a photograph of Till's mother seems to prompt Baldwin's decision to publish. How he arrived at this choice and manages to "ring life from death" isn't entirely clear, but in Dewberry's performance, the journey to resolution is compelling.

"Waiting for Giovanni" premiered in San Francisco in 2011, and thanks to the invaluable TOSOS, the play is finally receiving a New York production. Gomez's character study grapples with issues as relevant today as when Baldwin was writing "Giovanni's Room." Are minority artists obligated to address their communities' crises? Is it a betrayal if their work doesn't focus on political and social issues? Will they be spurned by their own people? Baldwin was a unique, complex, uncompromising man and an impassioned, candid writer, eminently worthy of dramatic exploration. "Waiting for Giovanni" is an intriguing play, and like the book that inspired it, and Baldwin himself, it recognizes the power of words.

"Waiting for Giovanni" continues through August 4 at The Flea Theater20 Thomas Street, New York, NY. For more information, visit the Flea Theater website.

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