Last year, when director Zachary Baker-Salmon and his cast and crew at Oracle Productions began preparing This House Believes the American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro, their re-creation of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University in October 1965, they had no idea that on August 9, Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, would be shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. When the original production of This House Believes premiered three weeks later at the Chicago Fringe Festival, it felt less like a historical re-creation than a debate over current events. A year later—after Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and, most recently, the anniversary protests in Ferguson, not to mention the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and the ongoing debate over the Confederate flag—it still does.
The original debate was broadcast on British television; you can watch it now on YouTube in the quiet and privacy of your own home. Johnard Washington, the actor who once again plays Baldwin, is compelling, but he doesn’t quite capture the real Baldwin’s mix of cool and passion. And Jeremy Clark, who reprises his performance as Buckley, sometimes goes too heavy on Buckley’s high-WASP mid-Atlantic accent and misses the reptilian quality so apparent in the film. So why venture out to the theater at all?
Well, for one thing, Washington and Clark still turn in credible performances, far superior to the crappy re-creations you can see on the History Channel. The intimate seating at Oracle Productions is a reasonable—if smaller—replica of the cramped quarters of the Cambridge Union where the original debate was held. Actors playing Cambridge undergrads sit in the audience; throughout the play, they mutter responses under their breath (in character), heckle and cheer, and occasionally jump up to make “point of information” interjections. It’s good theater.
But—aside from some occasionally distracting lighting design—it also looks a lot like life. A tiny YouTube window in blurry black and white does not. Instead, it’s a visual cue that everything you’re watching on the screen is History. It’s easy to separate Baldwin and Buckley into hero and villain and dismiss the villain because History has proven him wrong. He’s not real—anybody who appears in black and white is probably long dead and completely irrelevant anyway.
But when Clark as Buckley is standing less than ten feet from you, in living color, so secure in his personal superiority as a white man that he dares to challenge Baldwin’s personal testimony (“It is quite impossible in my judgment to deal with the indictments of Mr. Baldwin unless one is prepared to deal with him as a white man, unless one is prepared to say to him that the fact that your skin is black is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise”) and then turns the question of American racism into an intellectual exercise, blathering away about how black Americans still live better than 95 percent of the world’s population and that the small increase of black physicians between 1900 and 1960 is not a sign of discrimination in medical schools but that “the Negro’s particular energy is not directed toward that goal”—well, doesn’t that sound a little bit familiar? Haven’t you heard it before, recently even, maybe from someone you know?
In This House Believes, Buckley turns into the figure Baldwin wrote about in his letter to his nephew, reprinted in his essay collection The Fire Next Time: “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them [white people], and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” (Why is this essay—which is not long—not required reading for all Americans?)
Although William F. Buckley Jr. himself is gone, This House Believes reminds us that the history he didn’t completely understand is still with us and that, in many ways, so is he. And so we still need Baldwin to remind us. “I am stating very seriously,” he told his audience in Cambridge, and tells us now, “and this is not an overstatement: I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing. The Southern oligarchy, which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat, and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free, and the home of the brave. And no one can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.” v