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March 7, 2022
‘Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley’ brings the famous 1965 debate closer than ever
Teagle F. Bougere and Eric T. Miller. Credit: Christopher McElroen.

In Debate: Baldwin vs. Buckley at A.R.T./New York South Oxford Space, the american vicarious recreates the famous event word for word, with Teagle F. Bougere as Baldwin and Eric T. Miller as Buckley. (Christopher McElroen directs.)

The debate may be exactly the same—we’re not. But if you’d think that would make it irrelevant, you would be very, very wrong.

For one thing, instead of a fully packed Cambridge auditorium, we’re seated single-file on three sides of an intimate upstairs space (the venue is the classy, exclusive-feeling Great Room at the A.R.T./New York South Oxford Space). We can’t avoid making eye contact with Baldwin as he declares: “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing,” and (which is more uncomfortable) we can’t avoid making eye contact with Buckley when he suggests that instead of asking Americans to renounce their ideals, Baldwin should ask his fellow Negros to take advantage of the opportunities America is handing them (Buckley doesn’t quite say “on a silver platter” but it’s implied).

This intimacy is both nerve-racking and electrifying, but most important of all, singularly effective. Cornered with these larger-than-life figures, we’re invited to have a personal stake in the debate, to feel the weight of these claims and pronouncements more deeply than if we were simply watching a televised broadcast, or even sitting in the back of an auditorium. It’s not theatre for the faint-hearted. What it is, however, is an engaging, exciting, and endlessly thought-provoking recreation of a watershed moment for American civil rights.

Of course, there’s another way in which we are not the same as the debate’s original audience. We are not British university students living in 1965, but (presumably) Americans living in 2022. And while I wish I could say that as a result of the intervening 57 years, we can now laugh at the problems that plagued our forbears, the case is very much the opposite. With the exception of a few references to then-recent historical events, the exact same debate could almost have taken place yesterday. Why in half a century we are still having the same debate is beyond the scope of this article, which—whatever delusions of grandeur I may possess to the contrary—is after all simply a theatre review.

But it is within my scope to tell you that this is a phenomenally acted, radically staged, electrically charged—and what’s more, much needed—production of a debate that should never, and definitely not now, sink into the obscure pages of forgotten history.

'Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley' runs March 5 to April 3 at the Great Room at the A.R.T./New York South Oxford Space (138 S Oxford St, Brooklyn). For tickets and more info, see the link below:

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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