It's the secret wish and terror of all writers that they might one day find themselves in a place where they will have to interact with their own characters; where they might finally be able to touch their creation, or where that creation might tell the writer what he or she did wrong in its making. In his new play A Prophet Among Them, playwright Wesley Brown imagines such a purgatory, in which the influential writer/activist James Baldwin has died and stands accused by the characters of his novels. As he defends himself against their charges, Baldwin reflects on his past and the people in it, and we see how his real life informed his literary one.
James Baldwin is primarily known for his essays, books, and public activism in the 1950s and '60s; along with men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he was known as a prominent black voice during the Civil Rights movement. Baldwin wrote and spoke about how white and black Americans alike would have to change if they wanted to avoid an eruption of violence, and he was often regarded as a kind of prophet (not surprisingly, for he spoke with the vigor of a preacher). As a very young man, he had in fact been a minister, but his struggles with himself--his rage, his insecurity, his homosexuality--led him in another direction. He wanted to write, and went to Paris to do so. There he met people who changed his life. He did write, before eventually returning to America and becoming involved in public life.
In A Prophet Among Them, this tumultuous life rolls out onto the stage before us. The play seeks neither to deify nor tear down Baldwin, settling instead on presenting the man and his work while illuminating and commenting on both in a critical but highly respectful dramatization. It's quite a challenge that Brown has given himself, and he does an awfully good job of meeting it. One leaves the theater feeling rather like one has gotten to know James Baldwin and is privileged to have done so.
A four-person ensemble embodies the multitude of important people in Baldwin's life (including the characters from his novels), stopping now and again to sing gospel numbers in hands-up-in-the-air, revival fashion. The play opens with Baldwin arriving fresh from death; initially bemused by the notion of having his own personal Greek chorus/Scrooge's ghosts combo, he soon joins in the dramatic recreation of the important moments in his life. It's as if we're allowed to witness whatever Baldwin might have seen as his life flashed before his eyes. Pivotal moments come to the fore: preaching as a youth, meeting the man who would become his first lover, writing Go Tell It On the Mountain, experiencing tastes of prejudice and of fame, etc. In the midst of these recollections, his own characters charge him with shortchanging them of the redemption they sought, writers Richard Wright and Harriet Beecher Stowe confront him about his attacks on their books, and Henry James advises him like some sort of literary angel.
The production could use some tightening, and perhaps a little too much happens for us to catch it all, but director Marie Thomas does pretty well at keeping events and apparitions orderly in this fever dream. The insistent drumming of percussionist Marlon Cherry helps keep the pace up, and the luminous cross on Jason Sturm's set reminds us of Baldwin's roots. The actors are excellent, each one playing multiple roles; Harvy Blanks and Tom Titone are especially good at this, shifting between their numerous characters--many of whom are famous personalities--with subtlety and exactness, while Reggie Montgomery channels James Baldwin in an affectionate portrait of this flawed and brilliant man.
Though its unstructured structure makes the play quite busy, it does work. It makes a fascinating subject even more fascinating, and it's often very funny. (Hard to say which dialogue comes from Brown and which from Baldwin himself, but there is a lot of wit to be found here.) Not to be obscured by the clever is the profound; after all, Baldwin didn't gain his reputation as a prophet for his witticisms. He was, indeed, a wise man. But his consuming concern for his race, for his nation, and for all people allowed him little time to tend to his own shortcomings. In A Prophet Among Them, Wesley Brown gives Baldwin the opportunity to recognize his failings and then to use his own wisdom to deal with them. It's a loving and honest tribute to a writer and man worthy of remembrance.