TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD — “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” the promotional spot begins. “His name is James Baldwin.”
Syracuse Stage is introducing a new generation of high school students to the great American writer and civil rights activist through the world premiere of “Citizen James”, or “The Young Man without a Country.” It was commissioned for the stage, before COVID-19 forced them to shift to a virtual presentation.
Playwright Kyle Bass wanted to write about Baldwin at the beginning of his career, when he fled to France with just $40 in his pocket.
“He loved America. He loved the idea and the possibility of the country, which is why it broke his heart. Which is why the racism and the white supremacy, and the systemic racism broke his heart. Only something you love can break your heart.”
The piece was written during the pandemic, as America wrestled with the murder of George Floyd and so many others. “He says, ‘I’m afraid to ask, are there names you know?’ He says, and then behind him, the names that had been from 1948 morph into the present-day names. George Floyd, Trayvon, all those names come forward.”
Kyle Bass hopes the students come away with one thing. Something that James Baldwin saw clearly generations ago, that the past is never really the past.
“All that they are living through now, particularly as it relates to social justice, Black Lives Matter, the American Reckoning with itself and its history. That is not new,” Bass said.
The production is sponsored through a grant from the community group 100 Black Men of Syracuse. Drake Harrison is their president. “What I think it’s done, it has given young people a chance to explore and imagine. When they see plays about themselves with folk that look like them, I think they see the possibilities,” Harrison said.
Classrooms across the city are watching “Citizen James,” then keeping the discussion going during talk-back Zoom sessions, to help students relate even more. Laurie Collins is an English teacher at Henninger High School. She told the panel that her introduction of African-American literature came in her high school library, on what was then a very limited shelf of books.
“No one ever handed me a piece of African-American literature. No one ever said ‘You’re gonna have to learn this about your history. I stumbled upon it myself,” Collins said.
James Baldwin was born in 1924. And as the centennial of his birth approaches, Kyle Bass says the lessons he left behind are making a major comeback. “He’s already in the zeitgeist. Everyone’s talking about Baldwin because he was right,” Bass says. “He said we must not tell the children there is no hope. Can’t tell the children that, then it’s over. Right? Then it’s over.”
“Citizen James” suggests it’s really just beginning.