On February 18, 1965, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. debated at The Cambridge Union. The question under consideration was “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin argued in favor of the motion, Buckley against. Baldwin won, earning 544 votes to Buckley’s 164. The text of Greig Sargeant’s play Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge is taken almost entirely from this debate, with the exception of a final, fictional scene between Baldwin (Sargeant) and Lorraine Hansberry (Daphne Gaines).
In his dramaturgical note, Sargeant argues that the question is “just as relevant today as it was in 1965.” I’m not sure that it is. The number of people who uncritically embrace the promise of the American Dream is surely smaller now than it was half a century ago. No doubt, were the vote held today, Baldwin’s margins would be even higher. So why stage the debate, especially when there is a film of the original? I’m not sure. The audience arrives with their answers settled. Is anyone convinced by Buckley (Ben Jalosa Williams)? I doubt it. He relies primarily on the straw man that Baldwin is advocating for the destruction of Western civilization. The result, then, is more like a sports match, aided by a bell that sounds suspiciously like the one that announces a new round in boxing. We cheer for Baldwin, we jeer at Buckley, and we go home unchanged.
In the final scene, Hansberry tells Baldwin, “We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” If this is Sargeant’s purpose, I’m afraid he has failed. Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge is not going to transform its audience into firebrands. Its ask—that we agree with Baldwin’s conclusions—is far too modest.
Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge runs through October 23rd at the Anspacher Theater. 425 Lafayette Street New York, NY. 1 hour. No intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.