Harlem Stage: The Year of James Baldwin Tribute
As part of a 14-month celebration of writing legend James Baldwin, Harlem Stage opened The Year of James Baldwin tribute with an eloquent production about an imaginary meeting of Baldwin and iconic musical genius Dinah Washington. Stranger On Earth combined creator Carl Hancock Rux’s soliloquies and readings of Baldwin’s essays with the rich vocals of Marcelle Davies Lashley performing as Dinah Washington. Marcelle Davies Lashley effectively imitates Dinah Washington’s rich sound by grabbing the audience with some of her celebrated classics including “What a Difference a Day Makes” and “Willow Weep For Me”. Across the stage, Carl Rux’s resonant voice opens the play with the words “I am thinking about performing James Baldwin” and then goes on to read from writings such as Baldwin on Baldwin and the essay “Letter to the World”. The play is a crisscross of soliloquies and soul-stirring music, taking the audience back in time when the two brilliant figures were in their heyday. But Lashley steals the show with her engaging singing, outdone only by the incredible instrumentation of Ted Cruz (piano) and Mimi Jones (bass). Spoken word and musical interpretation were further complemented by the lattice-work video-montage of historic Black and White still photos that were the perfect backdrop to the performances.
Stranger on Earth gives us elements of both Baldwin and Washington’s stories—Baldwin growing up in the 1960s as a Black male in Harlem and Washington’s mania to never be alone, marrying eight times before accidentally dying of a brandy-laced drug overdose.
I don’t know if I was convinced of an imaginary meeting of these two icons, but Rux and Lashley gave a convincing staging of their talents—Rux’s intricate, thought-stirring writing and Lashley’s successful channeling and interpretation of Dinah make for a satisfying production.