Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Baldwin and Hansberry were close friends and fellow travelers. Both broke new ground as African American writers; both were gay at a time when it was dangerous to be openly so; and both were deeply frustrated by the slow progress of civil rights in the United States, with Hansberry moving toward calls for violent struggle along with non-violent campaigns and Baldwin living as an ex-pat in Europe to escape the oppression he felt as a black man in the United States.
Wilks conceived his play as a series of heart-to-heart conversations between these friends, interspersed with their encounters with significant figures from their larger world. Each writer has their own desk, one on either side of the stage, at which they write and ruminate, a visible sense of the isolation a writer experiences while at work. Most of the scenes, though, are played center stage, where Hansberry and Baldwin verbally spar, boost each other, make plans, bemoan the plight of America, and find solace in their friendship and whiskey.
Jon-Michael Reese is Baldwin in a masterful performance that brings to vivid life the very essence of this man, whose voice, posture, facial tics, and details as minute as how he held a cigarette have been well documented. Reese appears not as an actor playing James Baldwin, but as the man himself. Vinecia Coleman is Hansberry, a figure whose physical bearing is less familiar to the public, but she captures the luminous smile for which the writer was known. She gives genuine representation to Hansberry's ceaseless push for progress though her writing and engagement with civil rights activists, as well as the loneliness of a woman twice removed from societies approval, for being black, and for being gay.
The play opens with the only fictional character seen on stage, Giovanni, the tragic bartender who inhabits Baldwin's novel "Giovanni's Room," reacting with pain and cynicism to his lover David's news that he is leaving Giovanni for a woman. In this work, Baldwin revealed his own vulnerability as a gay man, and the price people pay for being at odds with the strictures of society, although unlike his first novel, "Go Tell It on a Mountain," the outsider status here is not based on race.
Hansberry similarly followed her breakaway success, A Raisin in the Sunthe first work by an African-American woman ever produced on Broadwaywith The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, about white liberals living in a Greenwich Village apartment, and was chided for veering outside her own world, even though Hansberry and her husband Robert Nemiroff, who was white, had lived in just such an apartment.
Both writers carried the mantle of representing their own people, but aspired to move past restrictions based on their race and to chronicle humanity writ large.
In that opening scene, Giovanni is played by Sasha Andreev, who, in the course of the play, also plays Lucien Happersberger (Baldwin's real-life Swiss lover, to whom he dedicated "Giovanni's Room"), Robert Nemiroff, Norman Mailer, and Robert F. Kennedy, who at the time was attorney general of the United States. Andreev gives every bit as strong a performance as his co-stars, seamlessly dissolving out of one character and into another. His presence as this range of individuals who represent different facets of Baldwin's and Hansberry's journeystheir great work as writers, their search for authentic love, their political fire, and their status as celebritiesmakes Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing more than a dialogue between the two extraordinary individuals, but a map that places those individuals on the contour of a society that challenges them every step of the way.
The play is greatly augmented by terrific use of projections (the work of Bill Cottman) on the beige on beige panels extending across the rear stage wall, used to establish settings, emotional tone, and historic context. Michael Wangen's lighting is also a key ingredient, setting wide illumination on the broad, glaring concerns, and narrowing upon the personal haunts of the two writers. Trevor Bowen's costumes the two main characters in period-smart garb fitting their sophisticated world, and he gives Andreev a woefully nebbishy sweater as Nemiroff.
Director Brian Jennings hails from Hartford, Connecticut, where he directed Jimmy and Lorraine in its 2015 world premiere at the HeartBeat Ensemble. He keeps scenes moving crisply, segueing from one segment to the next as if the entire play is one long conversation, only pausing on several occasions to change emphasis.
One of those pauses introduces a segment titled "The Summit," based on the May 24, 1963, meeting hosted by Bobby Kennedy at his New York City apartment, to which he asked Baldwin to bring together a group of Civil Rights leaders in order to help him, Bobby, hear their concerns. Baldwin obliged, inviting about a dozen august figures, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and Hansberry, as well as activist psychologist Kenneth Clark, leaders of the Chicago Urban League and the NAACP, a representative from Dr. Martin Luther King, and Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider who had been savagely beaten by police in Mississippi. The meeting turned hostile when it appeared that Kennedy's agenda was to convince his guests that the President (his brother John F. Kennedy) was doing a great deal to help the "negroes," a position those assembled rejected, decrying the Kennedy administration for doing too little, not grasping the depth of the issues, and failing to identify racial discrimination as a moral issue. This sequence uses some of the documented dialogue from that event. It is thoroughly chilling, its content highly enlightening and its delivery electrifying.
Another scene has Hansberry, Baldwin, and Norman Mailer (Andreev, again) arguing their positions while energetically dancing ("The Twist" was in vogue) over a soundtrack that was difficult to follow, especially with Mailer talking over his two interlocutors. The scene puts a spin of pop culture over the serious issues at hand, and Mailer's, and the delivery of the message intended is blurred by the noise and movement. Of course, perhaps that actually was Wilks' intent, as the line between activism and entertainment was sometimes muddied as America entered the sixties.
Several ploys recur during the play to prompt Baldwin and Hansberry to speak their truths. One of these is a repeated game of "Truth or Dare" between the two old friends. Another involves Andreev, in different guises, pushing them to respond to the question "What do you want?," pushing so aggressively that it feels like an attack, as if these activists will always want more and will never be satisfied. In fact, there is some truth to that, as what they want is for the whites who wield power to no longer be in a position of asking them "what do you want?."
Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing runs ninety minutes without intermission. It breathlessly presents the deeply felt friendship shared by Baldwin and Hansberry, the personal demons that haunted them, the challenges they faced in a society where racism and homophobia were openly practiced and favored by law, and their public courage in standing against racism. The fight against homophobia was not to become public until after Hansberry's untimely death in 1965, but one can easily imagine her in another decade as a champion for gay rights.
The play is engrossing, and glistens in this excellent production. It prompts the question of how well the pall that racism cast over our nation is understood today, and the headlines on newspapers throughout the country give us the sorry answer. Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing bracingly portrays our recent past, but is also a depiction of current events.
Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing runs through October 20, 2019, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $24.00. For tickets and information, call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Playwright: Talvin Wilks; Director: Brian Jennings; Choreography: Leslie Parker; Set Design: Leazah Behrens; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Light Design: Michael Wangen; Projection Design: Bill Cottman; Assistant Projection Designer: Peter Morrow; Props Design: Kellie Larson; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; House Technician: Katie Deutsch; Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Giovanni/Lucien Happersberger/Robert Nemiroff/Norman Mailer/Robert F. Kennedy), Vinecia Coleman (Lorraine Hansberry), Jon-Michael Reese (James Baldwin).