James Baldwin: his past and our future

On Monday evening I walked into Penumbra Theatre, having never read a work by James Baldwin.

Two hours later I left Penumbra, determined to read everything he’s ever written.

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James Baldwin

Image source: PBS

Such was the power and infectious enthusiasm of the St. Paul company’s “Let’s Talk Theatre” series, which this week focused on the life and work of the acclaimed author and playwright. James Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner” is up next on the Penumbra’s production calendar, and will be performed on the Guthrie Theater’s mainstage.

Penumbra Associate Artistic Directors Sarah Bellamy and Dominic Taylor led the conversation, with actors occasionally reading works that shed light on the man and his deeply intellectual and analytical take on race, homosexuality, religion and American culture.

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Sarah Bellamy and Dominic Taylor on stage at Penumbra Theatre

Photo by Michal Daniel

The author of numerous books and essays, Baldwin spent much of his life as an expat in France. From there he felt better equipped to analyze American society, and analyze he did, fearlessly.

The Penumbra event included the playing of this clip from Baldwin’s documentary “Take this Hammer” which aired in 1963:

During the course of the evening Dominic Taylor expressed his frustration at times with young writers and playwrights who aspire to write something “new and different” without first having studied the works of those who came before them. Without that sense of history, Taylor said, it’s difficult to move ideas forward.

Taylor said Baldwin’s writing was so illuminating because it captured both your head and your heart. “In reading Baldwin’s words I don’t just begin to understand Baldwin – I begin to understand myself,” said Taylor. Many of Baldwin’s writings dating back to the ’50s and ’60s seem just as pointed and relevant today, he added.

In 1987 Baldwin died of stomach cancer in France, and was later buried in Harlem. Before his death he was given the highest honor one can receive in France, and named a Commander of the French Legion of Honor. In a tribute to her mentor, Toni Morrison wrote:

In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive…It infuriated some people. Those who saw the paucity of their own imagination in the two-way mirror you held up to them attacked the mirror, tried to reduce it to fragments which they could then rank and grade, tried to dismiss the shards where your image and theirs remained – locked but ready to soar. You are an artist after all and an artist is forbidden a career in this place; an artist is permitted only a commercial hit. But for thousands and thousands of those who embraced your text and who gave themselves permission to hear your language, by that very gesture they ennobled themselves, became unshrouded, civilized.

I’m going to head over to the library later today and pick up a few of Baldwin’s books; I’m curious to see how my better understanding of his work will shape my own view of the present, and the future.

Better late than never.

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