Simon re-imagines the meeting by using only two characters: James Baldwin and Ethereal, a spirit-like figure who embodies seven various characters throughout the story. The book is an attempt to honor the memory and life of James Baldwin and invites readers to reexamine the past while celebrating the spirit of freedom and liberation that Baldwin embodied. Charles Reese took time out while preparing for the CBC to respond to some of our questions about his recently released book based on the play.
BPM: Describe the significance of celebrating James Baldwin’s life and readers getting this book.
Reese: Baldwin was a young preacher during his early days in Harlem. A gay man and an expatriate who left America for France in the late 1940s so that he could become a writer in another country. In this book version of the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway play, Simon deals with Baldwin’s innermost passions. The premise is one day in the life of Baldwin as he prepares for a secret meeting on race relations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in New York City three months before the March on Washington. There is a wonderful foreword by David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, which is a special treat for readers. Leeming, who lived and worked with Baldwin, shares reflections on how the re-imagining of history connects from 1963 to the present day.
BPM: How do you think the book will add to the ongoing conversation about the issues that affect us: tolerance, equality, justice, action, freedom, etc.?
Reese: The mention of James Baldwin’s name still sparks dialogue and debate on tolerance, race, and equality. This is Jimmie Baldwin’s time again in America and internationally. Baldwin’s works speak clearly to issues of freedom and liberation. Furthermore, 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of James Baldwin’s physical departure from the art, cultural and political scene. This book and the focus on Baldwin in 1963 serves as a tool to reignite his spirit to use as a proactive solution for some of these modern-day issues.
BPM: Tell us about the playwright’s vision for his play. Whom did he want to touch?
Reese: The playwright, Howard B. Simon was my Morehouse College classmate who gave me this project as a birthday gift in 1999. Along with the Baldwin project, Simon is the author of over 12 plays, several essays, a poetry collection (the next book), and the Emmy Award-winning film for Best Educational Programming, Just Passin’ Through. He always dreamed that his work would live on like the work of Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, and of course James Baldwin. He passed at 37 years old. He simply wanted to share humor, style, and raw emotions with the world for social change.
BPM: What would James be dismayed, challenged by or celebrating 25 years after his death?
Reese: In Nobody Knows My Name Baldwin states, “Human freedom is a complex, difficult—private thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, like a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion.” After 25 years, I believe James Baldwin would be happy about the election of President Barack Obama. After you read the book along with David Leeming’s foreword, you will truly understand the significance of the secret Baldwin/Kennedy meeting of 1963 and the Obama connection. ”
Reese is best known for his critically acclaimed Off Broadway performance with Tony Award Nominee, Forrest McClendon in “James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire” by the late playwright Howard B. Simon (1962-2000). He recently completed his highly popular literary performance and book salon tour with a birthday celebration at The James Baldwin Literary Society (JAMBALITSO) in Baltimore, Maryland.
James Baldwin: A Soul On Fire by Howard B. Simon.
Edited by Charles Reese. Foreword by David Leeming.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of James Baldwin’s death.
James Baldwin: A Soul On Fire is a two character short play which re-imagines what happens when writer/activist James Baldwin invites Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne to a round table discussion on race relations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy on May 24, 1963? This theatrical play witnesses a day in the life of James Baldwin as he prepares for this lesser known historical secret meeting in New York City–three months prior to the March on Washington. This uniquely structured play explores the hidden recesses of Baldwin’s innermost passions. David DeWitt of the New York Times proclaimed, ” James Baldwin : A Soul on Fire is the best sort of biography: the sort that thoroughly entertains.”(04/12/00)
Purchase James Baldwin: A Soul On Fire