Praise for Capote / Baldwin Winter Repertoire (2010)
“Two different approaches, two distinctive performances, two important writers- and one great repertoire of plays.”– Philadelphia City Paper
Feelin’ Single, Seein’ Double
Mauckingbird Theatre Co.’s Tru. and The Treshing Floor
by Mark Cofta
Published: January 19, 2010
Devoted to gay themes, the two one-man shows produced by Mauckingbird Theatre Co. are an inspired pairing. Both Tru (about Truman Capote) and The Threshing Floor (actor James William Ijames’ new play about James Baldwin) present sympathetic portraits of significant American writers (both born in 1924) who were homosexual smokers who drank to excess. In Mauckingbird’s repertory, they even share S. Cory Palmer’s handsome set, which doubles as Capote’s New York apartment in 1975 and Baldwin’s home in France circa 1985.
Despite the similarities, the two plays differ considerably in tone and approach. Tru, a Broadway hit 20 years ago, fits the now-familiar pattern of solo shows, establishing a breezy convention — we’re there, in Capote’s home, simply for him to play off — to allow biography to emerge. Jay Presson Allen’s script indulges in trite devices like one-sided phone calls, dictated biographical notes and incessant name-dropping that would be tiresome from an actor less skilled than Chris Faith.
He’s a fixture on area stages, and his Capote — directed by equally ubiquitous comedic actor Tony Braithwaite — shows Faith at his high-energy best. When Capote proclaims, “I’m the one who brought intellect and wit to the party,” we know he’s right. In fact, once adjusted to Faith’s flawless Capote voice (a distinctive lispy drawl), we forget the actor entirely and enjoy our two hours with the socialite author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Though he’s young for the role, Faith sincerely realizes the underlying pain of Capote’s 51 years, even in an overblown cathartic confessional imposed by the playwright.
Ijames the playwright treats Ijames the actor much better, with The Threshing Floor’s lean 75-minute script that allows him to morph seamlessly from Baldwin and an awed graduate student to many other personalities in Baldwin’s life. He rejects the talking-to-the-audience convention, instead using simple interview to allow Baldwin to share his history. Born black and gay in Harlem, Baldwin became a preacher and singer before writing, and at an early age encountered prejudice. “I do not want to live where I cannot simply be with dignity,” he realizes, and chooses exile. As he showed in novels Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, “I didn’t abandon America, I just went across the ocean to see it more clearly.”
Without the conceit that Ijames actually is Baldwin, he’s free to slip into other roles. With succinct, specific changes in inflection, he becomes Baldwin’s parents, a supportive white teacher, and historical figures like Josephine Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and, most powerfully, Eldridge Cleaver — who expelled Baldwin from the ’60s radical black movement because he was gay, a shocking irony for a civil rights leader.
Director Brandon McShaffrey moves The Threshing Floor briskly, using sound designer Matthew Lorenz’s incisive jazz selections to propel the many shifts in time, space and character. We never forget that Ijames is an actor — he’s presenting a story, not an impersonation — and marvel at this emotional and verbal dexterity.
Two different approaches, two distinctive performances, two important writers — and one great repertoire of plays.
James Ijames as James Baldwin in The Threshing Floor