Just weeks after an election that confirmed America’s embrace of racism, misogyny and other forms of violent intolerance, we could all use a solid dose of the work of James Baldwin. The great author died almost 30 years ago, but his writings and insights are prescient, pithy and wise today.
People in New York City and Los Angeles will get to enjoy a solid dose of Baldwin onstage and on film this week. Meshell Ndegeocello’s Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, a theatrical production based on the legendary book The Fire Next Time, will premiere at Harlem Stage Dec. 7-11. (If you don’t have tickets already, you’re out of luck. The show is sold out.)
Also Raoul Peck’s searing documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, a film based on an unfinished Baldwin manuscript, will be screened in a special one-week preview at Metrograph in New York City and Cinemark Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles starting Dec. 9 (the film opens nationwide in February 2017).
“He’s for all times,” said Ndegeocello by phone Tuesday. “For me, Baldwin is like a deity that has replaced my other deities, and his wisdom helps resolve my existential issues.”
Writer and performer Carl Hancock Rux agrees. “I think Baldwin is timeless. Racism, injustice and homophobia are cyclical,” he said earlier in the week. “The struggle continues. That is the essential message Baldwin was trying to express to the world.”
Can I Get a Witness stars Toshi Reagon, Staceyann Chin, Justin Hicks and Paul J. Thompson. Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, the show is structured as an African-American church service and features sermons and original musical compositions by Ndegeocello, Reagon and Hicks; original poetry by Chin; and testimony by Thompson. Ndegeocello said that the idea to set it as a church service enabled her to expand the work with theatrical power via colorful sets and innovative lighting.
In some ways this work, as well as some of Ndegeocello’s other activities, signals a shift in focus for the veteran performer, who has been creating classic songs since the early ’90s. “I’m almost 50,” she said, pausing as if for reflection. “I don’t have as much interest in getting onstage and performing older songs anymore.” She then laughed and said that was a career path that led to Las Vegas, which was probably not for her.
Ndegeocello did the soundtrack for the first season of Ava DuVernay’s riveting OWN series, Queen Sugar, and she’s started work on the music for the second season. Additionally, she’s doing the music for an upcoming Amazon.com series, I Love Dick, which is based on the Chris Krauss novel and directed by Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon.com’s hit series Transparent.
With less interest in doing concerts, would Ndegeocello like to take Can I Get a Witness on the road? She acknowledged that the idea appeals to her, but said it would have to be somewhere that serves food and drink.
“First of all, we have to get some licorice and black sea salt because the black experience in America is salty and sweet,” she said. She paused and then added, “We also have to serve Champagne and whiskey; those are Baldwin’s favorites.”