After a wild night of partying, James Baldwin (Charles Reese) wakes into a morning nightmare. For one thing, the man he brought home from a neighborhood bar has vanished, taking all the cash out of his wallet. For another, he and a group of distinguished black celebrities are scheduled to meet Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the ungodly hour of noon. What’s worse, his multiple phone lines won’t stop ringing—Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte want to talk about their plan for asking the president to escort a black student into a segregated school, while his trick from last night calls to say he’s also stolen the only copy of Baldwin’s recently finished novel. Clearly aspirin alone won’t be enough to relieve this mega-hangover.
In James Baldwin: Soul on Fire (Henry Street Settlement), playwright Howard Simon conjures up a dilemma that neatly captures the conflict Baldwin faced between his art and his activism. Should he show up for the meeting with Kennedy and fight for equal educational opportunities, or should he pay off his blackmailing boyfriend and get back his manuscript? If the situation sounds pat, that’s not how it comes across under Chuck Patterson’s lively direction, which mixes sly comedy with old-fashioned call-and-response preaching.
Reese passionately inhabits Baldwin’s character, making the somber-eyed author a bit more extroverted than he appears on a briefly shown video clip. Forrest McClendon, who impersonates the rest of the characters in this New Federal Theater production, transforms from a diva singer to a ghetto hustler in a single snap. Sadly, after last Wednesday’s show, the actors reported that the playwright had passed away earlier that day. Their work pays tribute to Simon’s own fiery soul.