In "James Baldwin -- Down from the Mountaintop," actor-creator Calvin Levels offers an inclusive and informative retrospective of the late author and activist, whose fierce eloquence articulated many uncomfortable aspects of the African American experience that had been -- and continue to be -- both urgent and too-little examined.
Levels' assured performance more than meets his biographical objectives, despite some limitations in the work's dramatic construction.
Visitation via seance is the serviceable and mercifully speedy device that brings Baldwin's spirit back to inhabit the body of a struggling actor in order to narrate his own story (a simple direct address in character would be just as effective, however). Physically different from the round-eyed Baldwin but a compelling presence nonetheless, Levels builds on the vocal cadences in introductory tape recordings played to make the portrait believable. Projected photographs and incidental music provide further immersion in Art Evans' staging.
The complex portrayal is not one of whitewashed idolatry. The sight of Baldwin characteristically swilling down Johnny Walker bourbon, puffing Dunhill cigarettes and frankly describing his sexual orientation as "confused" might not seem the hallmarks of a traditional role model, but Levels insightfully brings to light his subject's rare and admirable qualities.
Baldwin's hard-won emotional conquest of his own racial animus (a hatred of "white devils" inherited from his rage-filled, abusive stepfather) was a truly heroic struggle. The more inclusive view of race relations he achieved never softened his tough-minded calls to action: To the placating assurances that improvements would come in time, Levels' furious answer "when?" still resonates.
However, Baldwin's stylistic gift for razor-edged metaphor is rarely reflected in a matter-of-fact narration that covers too much of the same ground. The litany of feuds with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and others begins to sound like literary name-dropping -- while Baldwin's social activism receives surprisingly little stage time.
Pruning down to representative episodes in a single act would sharpen the piece -- few solo portraits can sustain momentum through an intermission, and this isn't one of them.
-- Philip Brandes
"James Baldwin -- Down From the Mountaintop," Village Theatre, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles. Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $20. Special benefit for Pacifica Radio Archives this Sunday only, 2 and 6 p.m., $50-$75 (includes VIP reception from 4-6 p.m.). (323) 293-2395 except for benefit reservations: (818) 506-1077, Ext. 264. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.