Mauckingbird Theatre Company is continuing its mission to produce thought-provoking LGBT-themed theater with productions of “The Threshing Floor” and “TRU,” two one-man shows about the lives of iconic gay writers James Baldwin and Truman Capote, respectively.
“The Threshing Floor” is a world-premiere production about Baldwin (1924-87), a writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil-rights activist who was born in Harlem. He resisted categorization, both as a gay novelist and an African-American writer. His major works include “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room,” the latter of which generated a storm of controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its homoerotic content.
James Ijames’ one-man show is based on an imagined encounter with the author and a fictional graduate student who comes to interview Baldwin at his home abroad in France, which he relocated to in 1948.
Out playwright and actor Ijames, who wrote and stars in “The Threshing Floor,” said he has been working on the play since he was in college.
“I had a professor that told me that I favored James Baldwin,” the 29-year-old said. “For an honors project in college almost seven years ago, I wrote a 15-minute version of [the play] that I just built on. It was always the intention for me to play James and the other characters in this piece.”
Ijames added that certain characters in the show are more difficult to portray than others.
“Aside from Baldwin, who is an enigmatic person in general, I would say the characters that don’t have personalities that precede them [are the most difficult],” he said. “Eldridge Cleaver, you have an idea of who he is. You have an idea of who Josephine Baker is. [Characters like] his mother, the people that you want to honor, but you have to find a truthful way of presenting them to the audiences. His father in particular was very difficult to bring to life because he’s basically going mad at the point we meet him in the play.”
Given the current state of racial and sexual politics in the United States, Ijames said the timing is perfect for a production about Baldwin.
“A lot of what Baldwin talked about in terms of race, gender and sexuality, we’re dealing with those things in a very real way,” he said. “It was almost prophetic in the way that he talks about how America will evolve. We are sort of moving in that direction in terms of racial tolerance and tolerance of different sexual orientations. He’s a good voice to listen to right now and to remind ourselves of where we come from.”
True. But let’s not forget that Baldwin moved to Paris because he was weary of American prejudices.
Is that in itself a message for this generation?
“It’s clear in his writing that he always had this aching for America,” Ijames said. “If you grow up with a parent that is absent, you always ache for that parent. It’s sort of the same thing with Baldwin and America. He recognizes that America isn’t a place where he can truly be who he is, but he longs for the day that it is true. That’s definitely apparent in the piece.”
“TRU” offers a glimpse into the life of Capote (1924-84), the influential author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” during a particularly dark chapter in his life, when he is shunned by elite social circles following the publication of a tell-all chapter from his unfinished book, “Answered Prayers.”
Chris Faith, who portrays Capote, described the overall tone of the production as “extremely bittersweet.”
“Sweet in that I think it’s charming, hysterical and heart-warming,” he said. “And then it’s also very, very sad because you’re kind of seeing this genius unravel before your eyes. I think the script does a very good job in painting that picture with being overly didactic.”
Tony Braithwaite, director of “TRU,” described the production as “charmingly confessional.”
“He’s a raconteur, a storyteller,” he said of Capote. “There are these moments of wonderful storytelling about himself and other aspects of his life. He’s a bit of a social pariah at the time we meet him after being way on top and being the toast of New York. It hurts. It cuts him to the quick. Those demons of being unaccepted and unloved go back to his family and growing up, issues with his physical appearance and sexuality. In the play, he’s confessing how he feels about this situation to us.”
Unlike “The Threshing Floor,” “TRU” is not a new play: It was originally written by Jay Presson Allen and opened on Broadway in 1989, where it ran for nearly 300 performances.
Braithwaite said Faith was instrumental in getting the dormant show going again.
“Chris obviously looks so much like Truman Capote,” Braithwaite said. “He woke one day and said, ‘I should really look into trying to play Truman Capote at some point.’ He knew of this one-man show that existed in New York in the ’90s that nobody seemed to do anymore. He and I had worked together a lot. [Mauckingbird Theatre Company producer] Peter [Reynolds] happened to get the idea around the time Chris and I were talking about it.”
Seeing as Capote is the more documented of the two authors in terms of his public persona, both Braithwaite and Faith said there were some difficulties in figuring out how to portray Capote on stage.
“This character is very iconic to a whole group of people. It’s difficult to honor his idiosyncrasies and mannerisms without it becoming a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” Braithwaite said. “Also, making this story — the text of which can often presume some knowledge — accessible to an older generation that knows him and a younger generation who might not know who Truman Capote is [was difficult].”
Faith said that, for him, the most difficult part of portraying Capote was not being afraid to let the voice and body go where they want.
“When I was trying to get his voice and his mannerisms down, basically you’re seeing him in a relatively sober state,” he said. “But then to allow yourself to veer from that and take an emotional journey, you kind of come up with your own voice and body movements using your imagination.”
He added that Braithwaite helped him avoid becoming a caricature of Capote.
“He’s very languid, so it was easy to kind of rest into that and not think about things in terms of theatricality,” Faith said. “Tony was very wise in saying you’ve got the languidness down but for the sake of theatricality, let’s play with more vocal and physical variations, all the while staying within the parameters of a believable Truman Capote.”
Both Braithwaite and Faith said while Capote has been portrayed on stage and screen many times, there’s one particular portrayal they heed the most.
“I saw [2005’s] “Capote” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman when it first came out,” the actor said. “It’s still a little vague right now in my mind, which is a good thing. I’ve been very cautious not to watch somebody else’s interpretation and stick only with the real deal watching old video clips and interviews of Truman.”
“It’s the Phillip Seymour Hoffman role that makes it tough because it was an Oscar-winning performance,” Braithwaite added. “That is the only thing we’re up against. But the timeline for that movie and the timeline for this production is at two different points in Truman’s life. We got lucky in that it’s two different time periods.”
Since “The Threshing Floor” and “TRU” are running concurrently, those involved with the plays are hopeful that audiences will take in both productions.
“James Baldwin and Truman Capote did cross paths at least on one occasion,” Faith said. “Truman is spoken about in ‘The Threshing Floor.’ It would be nice for people to see both and see two different viewpoints from these two geniuses about life.”
Ijames added that the two authors were very aware of each other’s careers.
“[Baldwin and Capote] complement each other well because they really respected each other’s writing and they were writing at the same time,” he said. “But they disagreed about how to write and what good writing was. Baldwin clearly respects Capote, but on some level doesn’t like him. It wasn’t necessarily a personal dislike, but Baldwin felt like you should be trying to say something to advance the society through writing and Capote was like, ‘I’m just a writer. I write the things that mean something to me.’ Baldwin felt like there should be a mission behind it.”
“The Threshing Floor” and “TRU” run through Jan. 31 at Adrienne Theatre’s Second Stage, 2030 Sansom St. For more information or tickets, visit www.mauckingbirdtheatreco.org or call (215) 923-8909.