Dear Friends of the Center for the Arts,
This week we focus on Elevator Repair Service’s new theater work in progress “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge.” Actors Greig Sargeant and Ben Williams and director and founder John Collins will discuss the development and process of creating the work on Thursday, March 4, 2021 at 8pm.
In January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters around the world, I saw an early open rehearsal of a new work by renowned theater company Elevator Repair Service. The company presented an excerpt of a new show they were developing, Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge. Actors Greig Sargeant and Ben Williams performed an extraordinarily moving verbatim excerpt from the original debate between civil rights activist James Baldwin and the father of modern American conservatism William F. Buckley, Jr. In 1965, Baldwin and Buckley had been invited by Cambridge University Union to debate the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin offered a riveting speech stating that the legacy of slavery and white supremacy had destroyed his sense of reality.
“It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection, the demoralization, and the gap between one person and another only on the basis of the color of their skin, begins there and accelerates – accelerates throughout a whole lifetime.”
Buckley acknowledged discrimination but said that America was a “mobile society” and Black people had every opportunity to improve their condition. This historic debate became a touchstone in both men’s lives and a marker of the Civil Rights Movement. The initial performance by Elevator Repair Service in 2020 created an incredible echo between the language and rhetoric being used in 1965 and much of the contemporary national conversations around race and equality in America. It was a performance filled with emotion, expression, desire, and an impassioned assertion of civil rights that I felt was important for our Wesleyan students and community to experience.
Elevator Repair Service is an acclaimed New York-based theater ensemble founded by director John Collins and a group of actors in 1991. Traditionally, the company has worked with found or literary texts. In 2006, the company changed the landscape of American theater with their eight-hour production of Gatz, which reenacted the novel The Great Gatsby on the stage. Gatz initiated a trilogy of American literature: Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, and The Select (The Sun Also Rises). This lengthy process of devising work from non-theatrical texts became the company’s signature. They are also known for innovative use of technology, imaginative choreography, and dense soundscapes in their productions. Elevator Repair Service creates its performances through extended periods of collaboration; a typical development cycle includes four to six intensive work periods within a two-year window followed by work-in-progress showings before touring.
Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge was originally set to premiere at The Public Theater in the spring of 2020. After the pandemic shut down theaters, Elevator Repair Service was forced to delay its opening. During the past year, the world has undergone major seismic shifts with the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the insurrection at the Capitol, the end of the Trump presidency, and more. Although the company started working on the production in 2019, by the time the show will premiere in late 2021 or early 2022, the lens through which audiences will see this important show has shifted.
The Center for the Arts plans to bring Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge to Wesleyan in February 2022. In the meantime, we are thrilled to host a conversation with Greig Sargeant, Ben Williams, and John Collins to discuss the show’s origins, how COVID-19 disrupted its development process, and how Black Lives Matter has heightened the lens through which audiences will now experience the production. The discussion will be moderated by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl and Fitzroy “Pablo” Wickham ’21.
We hope you join us on Thursday, March 4, 2021 at 8pm for this dynamic conversation moderated by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl and Fitzroy “Pablo” Wickham ’21. Reservations are free through the Center for the Arts Box Office.
Associate Director for Programming and Performing Arts
Center for the Arts