‘Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge’ Off Broadway Review: The Great Debate Loses Some of Its Bite

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. continue to argue about dreams and race in America

baldwin buckley
"Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I highly recommend you watch the YouTube taping of the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., recorded in 1965 at the University of Cambridge. Much less interesting is “Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge,” which opened Sunday at the Public Theater.

The question of the debate was “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” On YouTube, Baldwin definitely wins the fight, with the student body at Cambridge overwhelmingly voting in his favor. How else would you think the Brits would vote when not having to confront their own history of bigotry?

On stage, in a production conceived by Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service and directed by John Collins, it’s not quite so obvious who wins. Buckley in the flesh always sabotaged himself, most famously in his debates with Gore Vidal on ABC during the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1968. That Buckley had been considered the most articulate voice of the conservative movement in America always seemed an indictment of that movement. He came off more gadfly than intellectual, with all his facial and vocal distortions.

On stage, Ben Jalosa Williams plays Buckley but doesn’t replicate his absurd mannerisms. I take that back. Late in his debate speech, Williams does indulge in some eye-popping and that ridiculous mid-Atlantic accent with its terribly elongated vowels, as if the speaker had gotten seasick on his way back to America. Did Williams forget whom he was impersonating — and then suddenly remembered late in his talk? There is one big plus to Williams eschewing all the Buckley trappings. It may be the first time I could understand what the man was saying.

Much stranger is what precedes the actual debate between Baldwin (Sargeant, being appropriately indignant and smart) and Buckley.

The actor Gavin Price takes the stage to welcome us to the Public Theater that acknowledges “the painful history of genocide and forced removal [of the Lenape people] from this territory.” From there, he segues without any notice (that I was aware of) to playing David Heycock from Pembroke College. Back in 1965, Heycock introduced and took Baldwin’s side in the debate. Jeremy Burford from Emmanuel College introduced and took Buckley’s side.

In “Baldwin & Buckley,” the actor Christopher-Rashee Stevenson plays Burford, and as soon as he started speaking, I thought I had misread the Playbill credits. Stevenson channels Buckley! Had the debate begun and I hadn’t realized that Price, the European-American actor, was playing Baldwin and Stevenson, the African-American actor, was playing Buckley? What an inspired piece of nontraditional casting!

Alas, after Stevenson stops speaking, Sargeant and Williams walk on stage to begin the real debate — very traditional casting here — and the “Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge” falls back to earth with a thud.

A certain weirdness returns to this 60-minute production when, after the debate, Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines) takes the stage to chat with Baldwin from what appears to be her living room couch (set design by Dots). According to Collins’ notes in the Playbill, this scene is “taken from several letters, interviews, and other writings of James Bladwin and Lorraine Hansberry, and compiled by Greig Sargeant and April Matthis, with additional text from Daphne Gaines and Stephanie Weeks.” Despite that plethora of credits, the scene lasts under 10 minutes. And it’s a real head-scratcher.

Also in the Playbill, Sargeant writes, “For those who think much has changed for the better in the United States regarding attitudes and behavior about race, I am telling you that, from my perspective, nothing has fundamentally changed.”

No kidding. How could anyone concoct a scene in 2022 between Baldwin and Hansberry and mention nothing about that other big strike leveled against them: their homosexuality? Yes, nothing has fundamentally changed.