Remembering Truman Capote, James Baldwin

A double dose of shows about gay American writers is only halfway successful.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 19, 2010

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Write flight: James Baldwin (Jame Ijames) spent time in Paris before returning to America.

There is no doubt that Truman Capote is a fascinating subject but you’d never know it from watching Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s production of playwright Jay Presson Allen’s Capote bio Tru .

Allen has nothing meaningful to say, but that doesn’t keep Capote (Chris Faith) from talking a lot—mostly about himself. He also dances, throws tantrums, pops pills and drinks (after announcing that he’s trying to temper his substance use).

The play takes place on Christmas Eve 1975. A chapter of Capote’s new book has just been published in Esquire . It’s a tell-all about Manhattan’s elite, and Capote’s friends aren’t amused at finding their excesses trumpeted in print. Ostracized, Capote sits in his apartment defiant but alone.

Faith gives an energetic, appealing performance, but director Tony Braithwaite’s production is overly focused on highlighting the show’s humor. Best known for his performances with the comedy troupe 1812 Productions (often alongside Braithwaite) Tru should be an opportunity for Faith to expand his range. Unfortunately, under Braithwaite’s direction the actor’s dramatic potential remains mostly untapped.

Faith is meticulous about portraying the author’s idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns, and eventually Capote emerges through the mania.

“I’ve never spent a tranquil moment in my life,” Capote says, and it’s easy to believe. Perhaps to ward off loneliness, he’s active throughout the play. Yet while Faith’s stamina is impressive, the play remains uninvolving.

Playing in repertory with Tru is Mauckingbird’s world premiere of writer-performer James Ijames’ The Threshing Floor . Like Tru , Floor is a solo play about a gay American writer—the influential African-American novelist James Baldwin.

Like Capote, Baldwin is a lonely figure who has alienated friends with his writing, but that’s where the similarities between these men (and plays) end. In Floor, James doesn’t limit himself to playing one character, and the different perspectives make it a far more enriching experience than Tru .

One major difference between Capote and Baldwin is their approach to writing. Unlike Capote (who says only half-jokingly that “good taste is the death of art”), Baldwin believes that an author should “never write anything without a message.” And while Capote embraces his celebrity status, proudly exclaiming, “I used to be famous because I wrote books. Now I’m famous for being famous,” Baldwin shuns the spotlight. Self-exiled to Paris, Baldwin has been ostracized by the African-American community because he’s gay. When he finally returns to America to become involved in the fight for civil rights, he’s shunned by the movement’s leaders. Clearly hurt by what he views as rampant homophobia in the African-American community Baldwin laments, “I can’t be black because I’ve loved a few men.”

It’s hard not to wonder what Baldwin would say about the nation’s first black president, a man who champions racial equality yet who also denies gay Americans their basic right to love.

Under Brandon McShaffrey’s direction, Ijames doesn’t so much impersonate Baldwin as inhabit him. He’s equally proficient with the show’s other characters, especially the women in Baldwin’s life; His portrayal of a white schoolteacher from Baldwin’s childhood is exceptionally good.

Tru provides a challenge for an actor and little more. Floor, however, is a provocative new work with a bright future. The play needs further development (at 70 minutes, it’s a bit short for a full evening’s entertainment) but it succeeds in communicating how, for Baldwin, the personal is always political. ■

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