‘The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro’ was the motion debated at the Cambridge Union in 1965. The event is famous partly because of its speakers, James Baldwin and William F Buckley, and was a precursor to the latter’s famous television confrontation with Gore Vidal (the event is mentioned, and Baldwin appears, in James Graham’s play The Best of Enemies). Reenacted in this adaption by director Christopher McElroen, the piece fits neatly into the genre of verbatim theatre.
The structure of the debate serves the show well – there’s plenty of drama in the format, after all. It’s a smart move to have Baldwin and Buckley joined by the undergraduates who also spoke at the debate – they set the scene and build tension. That the younger men’s speeches are poorer proves interesting – for them the public speaking is an exercise that lacks the conviction and the intelligence that is to come. Strong performances from Tom Kiteley and Christopher Wareham reflect youthful nerves and bravado well.
Baldwin and Buckley, performed by Teagle F Bougere and Eric T Miller, respectively, are the star attractions and their speeches are justifiably famous. Bougere brings Baldwin’s passion to the stage, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him even before he speaks as you record his reactions to what he hears. Miller shows the wily Buckley at his ‘best’ with a mix of faux self-deprecation and a performance of objectivity that impress as well as chills. Both bring their roles to life using their skills as actors rather than impersonators.
It is the skill in implanting the debate into our reality that makes the show great theatre. After all, you can watch the debate on YouTube so why go to the show? McElroen has a TV set on stage, with a voiceover introducing the event and its speakers. It is smart reminder that we should question the distance that watching the show as an archival recording from 1965 creates between us and the arguments. Because what we hear – live – is shockingly relevant.
The way Buckley alienates and then demonises Baldwin may be more subtly polite than we are used to nowadays but could be a playbook for polarising politicians. As Baldwin recounts the impact the colour of his skin has had on his life, current concerns with systemic racism come into focus. Baldwin speaks of how our very reality is shaped by racism. A performance like this allows us to question how much that reality has changed.
Until 15 April 2023
Photos by EllieKurttz