A review of Calvin Levels presentation of “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop”
It was a cool evening that I found myself walking in en route to view a presentation called “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop” performed by Calvin Levels. On my walk, I remember wondering what it was that I was going to see. The thought of “Down from the Mountaintop” instilled in me the deeply spiritual parts of the south, so I began imagining gospel or bluegrass musical numbers. When the show started and Levels walked out to a couch and several sets of tables and chairs and began to talk about how this set did not look at all like his home in Paris, I did not know what I was in for.
As Levels related the life of James Baldwin, strong, “gut” feelings began to well up in me. When he spoke about people’s ability to do what they set their mind to, I was very inspired. To see that Baldwin, growing up in the days where this country was torn apart by oppression, growing up in the days where he, as a kid, was denied ice cream by a police officer just because of the color of his skin, never let that opposition get the best of him, gave me a lot of hope. When Levels, as Baldwin, strode out from backstage and transmitted such a feeling of confidence, it gave me confidence, and helped me to discover the strength that every one of us has if only we endeavor to tap into it. Therein, I believe, lies the main theme of Levels presentation. If we tap into that strength, every one of us has the power to make a difference. In his case, it was to become a respected member of the community and use this respect to educate others that they have the power to go as far as they want to.
The first collection of thoughts and oppositions that Levels, as Baldwin, mentions revolve around the relationship he had with his minister father. This relationship helped Baldwin to stand his ground in the face of opposition. As a minister, as many ministers are, his father was extremely strict. And as a black man who was a minister, his father was unafraid to speak his mind, especially when it came to white people and his anger towards them. He was also not afraid to express how he felt about Baldwins decision to become a writer. “A waste of time” Baldwin remembers his father saying because he had no faith in his sons abilities. This inspired a strong drive in Baldwin to never accept others peoples imposed limitations, even if they are imposed by a close relative, like his father, or those who enforced oppression.
The first white person that ever showed Baldwin any kindness was a teacher that realized the young boys' intellect. In describing his experiences with his teacher, Levels captures the wonder of a child who is seeing a movie for the first time. He is there, in the theater, his eyes wide and full of life. This same teacher shows Baldwin that not all white people are evil by sticking up for him when the police officer will not allow him an ice cream. This experience seems also to illustrate that despite the fact that there are people out there who may want to dictate other people’s lives, this does not mean that change is impossible.
Baldwin has shaped his life and writings around his ideals of standing up, and thinking, for himself and believes in this with a passion that demands Levels to transmit an intense level of energy at all times. This he does by passionately speaking about different times in Baldwin's life. In describing the above scene with the police man and the ice cream, Levels stands politely with a huge smile on his face, much like a child. After the teacher forces the officer to give him the ice cream, he hangs his head in shame like a child that did not know he did anything wrong. He yells and jumps around the stage when recalling his days as a fourteen year old minister. Tears come to his eyes (I still have not figured out how he did this) when remembering both joyful and tragic events. There was an energy that this performer had that could be seen in his eyes and heard in his voice.
Levels used Baldwin's life to inspire others to not be bothered by what other people think. To say that Levels was efficient in communicating an inspiration for empowerment would be an understatement. His powerful performance combined with the life experiences of James Baldwin forcefully wrenched out of me an inspiration to better myself and to live for myself no matter what anyone says that was shared, judging by the enthusiastic woo-hoo-ing and applauding at the end, by the rest of the audience.
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