On Feb. 18, 1965, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. The resolution: “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin, unsurprisingly, spoke for the affirmative. Buckley, who agreed to appear after several other American conservatives had refused, opposed him.
Elevator Repair Service, the experimental theater company, revives this discussion — every word of it and a few more — in “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge,” directed by John Collins at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Greig Sargeant, a longtime company member who conceived the piece, stars as Baldwin. Ben Jalosa Williams, another veteran, plays Buckley. The set for this Cambridge University institution is minimal — two tables, two chairs, two tabletop lecterns. Sargeant and Williams don’t imitate the real men’s accents and cadences, the better to bring the debate closer, showing how germane its arguments remain, with Baldwin insisting that America has been built on the forced labor of its Black inhabitants and Buckley countering that if Black Americans would only put in the effort, they too could enjoy of its fruited plains. House lights stay on through most of the show, implicating the audience.
“Baldwin and Buckley” overlaps with a couple of past E.R.S. shows. Williams has played Buckley at least once before, in the company’s “No Great Society,” which staged an episode of “The Steve Allen Show,” in which Jack Kerouac confronted establishment types. “Arguendo,” which opened at the Public in 2013, presented oral arguments from a Supreme Court case in which exotic dancers advocated for the right to perform nude. E.R.S. often works from texts — novels, verbatim transcripts — that are not intrinsically dramatic. The company tends to approach these texts obliquely, playfully, with an elbow to the ribs.
There are few elbows here, however. Christopher Rashee-Stevenson, a Black actor, horses around with his part of a white Cambridge undergraduate who speaks on Buckley’s side. (Gavin Price, a white actor, plays the young man, also white, who bolsters Baldwin’s.) Otherwise the debate is staged with an unfrilled gravitas. Sargeant is forceful, with a tinge of Baldwin’s mannered veneer. Williams is lightly oleaginous. Neither relies on exaggeration or archness. The gonzo props and goofy sound design and butt dances of prior E.R.S. shows? These do not appear.