Margaret Mead begins her tango of a conversation with James Baldwin by launching into an extraordinarily self-congratulatory solo about what she calls the “romantic, good Northern behavior” that defines her beliefs about race relations in America and how she acts on those beliefs.
Baldwin listens patiently and encouragingly. And he grabs onto her word “romantic” like Itzhak Perlman or Charlie Parker, returning to the theme and improvising on it for the rest of the dialogue, which took place in 1970.
Baldwin has a musician’s understanding of how something can be the “same, but very different.” He says he has no use for romanticism or sentimentality.
I heard Baldwin’s words read by choreographer Donald Byrd and Mead’s by actor Kathryn Van Meter. They sat in what looked like a cozy study suspended over a Denver stage in a performance conceived by Byrd and the always astonishing Anna Deavere Smith.
Deavere Smith works with found text, usually words she mines from interviews she conducts, as in 1992’s “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.” She found the Mead-Baldwin “Rap on Race” in a bookstore at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1980s. She created a solo performance of the shortened version that I saw Van Meter and Byrd read last night. Byrd added choreography – all lithe energy, anger and joy – for a dozen dancers to Charlie Mingus’s “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” one of my favorite pieces. The movement and the music come at pauses in the discussion, giving the audience time to digest what they’re hearing and what it’s making them feel.
“I’m at home,” Mead says.
“I’m not romantic. I’m not at home here. And never will be,” Baldwin says.
I still can’t decide whether Mead ever really hears Baldwin. But she edges toward a realization that she is constrained by American history, as he is.
Of course, it’s one thing to have limits on your actions and how they are perceived. And quite another to have your very being straining against what Baldwin calls “the framework of the American civilization.”