Public Access Theater’s Baldwin-Buckley debate looks to audiences for answers

This House 1
Photo Credit: Tony Binns for Steed Media Service

Audiences attending the Public Access Theater’s run of Zachary Baker-Salmon’s adaptation of This House Believes The American Dream Is At The Expense of The American Negro have an opportunity to see how history was made and vote on this important question. In 1965, the Cambridge Union Society hosted an historical debate between Civil Rights novelist James Baldwin and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. This House Believes is a theatrical enactment of the debate adapted from the source material. Preserving the parliamentary debate format, audiences cast their vote on the topic prior to entering the house, and again after the performance.

Below, we discuss the play with Johnard Washington, who plays Baldwin.

Why adapt the debate to a play?
The play offers a huge significance, both then and now: 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. And 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, the 50th anniversary of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 50th anniversary Baldwin/Buckley debate itself.

Would it be fair to say that the play has relevance today?
Reverend Clementa Pickney. Tywanza Sanders. Reverend Sharonda Singleton. Cynthia Hurd. Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Ethel Lance. Susie Jackson. Myra Thompson. Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin…the list goes on. It’s absolutely unfortunate how relevant this debate is today. That we have to have a #BlackLivesMatter campaign in 2015 is heinous. But we need this show to point out our system. To place a mirror on ourselves and the rules that we choose to live in and govern our lives. Every night, after the show, I get to speak to people, some of whom even disagree about what this means for them. Zach Baker Salmon (director), Jeremy Clark (William F. Buckley,) and Ben Fuchsen (executive producer) have spent many nights, earnestly, trying to figure out how to solve the extremely complicated problems of American society in regard to its mistreatment and lack of concern for the African American today. But I think that’s why Oracle chose the show in its season. We four certainly can’t figure it out alone. We need as many ideas as we can get until we can ultimately find resolve.

Working so closely as Baldwin, do you have a renewed appreciation of the writer?
Absolutely. There has been, I feel, and most important, a certain energy that I must maintain in order to keep up with the mind of such a brilliant man. There is also a certain openness that I, Johnard, do not practice daily that is essential to playing Baldwin. Baldwin also was coming from an immediacy in 1965 that took several weeks of dramaturgy for me to gather. It certainly angered me, as I’m sure it did Baldwin. But the biggest thing that I appreciate and have learned from Baldwin is approaching the piece from a place of love. That’s hard.

How have audiences received the show?
The show has had a huge build of momentum as word-of-mouth has spread fairly quickly for it. We toured it for a couple of weeks (at Theatre on the Lake) at Washington Park and Austin Town Hall. There, we had moderately full audiences who were definitely curious about the show with such a presumptuous title; or [some were] aware of and maybe even had seen the debate that took place in 1965. But now, at Oracle’s space, we are essentially sold out every performance. That’s the important factor: the audience is more important than any of us actors. It’s all about the vote.

Public Access Theater, 3908 N. Broadway, performances are free and runs through Sept. 19, 2015.

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