Waiting for Giovanni
by Jewelle Gomez
in collaboration with Harry Waters, Jr.
It’s 1957. Bombs are exploding in Black churches and lynching continues to be the local entertainment in the South. Who can afford to worry about love? The truth is: When can humans afford to NOT worry about love?
This is a dream play—as defined by Strindberg—so not biographical of a particular person or wholly realistic although it does emerge from my thoughts about author/activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) in the midst of these horrors. It takes place in a split second in Black novelist Jimmy’s mind as he faces the scars of childhood–emotional abuse inflicted by a cruel, religious and unstable stepfather; and he wrestles with the threat those wounds are to his current personal, professional and activist life.
Under the pressure of the past Jimmy reconsiders the American publication of his second novel, which he feels he must write although many friends have warned him that the explicit & mature homosexual content will end his career as a Civil Rights activist and as an internationally known author. Even his current love affair with a young European painter, who’s ambivalent about the relationship, impedes his ability to speak fully.
It’s a period suffused with the music of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Bix Beiderbek, Duke Ellington and Clifford Brown. It is also steeped in the chants of Civil rights marchers and the blood of many including 15 year old Emmett Till, murdered by White Southerners protecting racial segregation.
His father’s voice (“black noise of Lucifer”) undermines Jimmy’s confidence resulting in his flight from Manhattan and his editor. The brutal murder of Emmett Till and the news of bloody confrontations in the US make his book (and the controversy it would ignite) feel self-indulgent. Fragile, yet full of bravado, Jimmy moves from one sparkling cocktail party to another (Harlem, Manhattan, Paris) with his coterie of admirers but he cannot escape himself. The threat of scorn from other Negro activists and writers adds to that familiar childhood insecurity, leading him to reject his book and to sink into jealous recriminations against his French lover who wants to protect him but does not want to be his life raft.
These conflicts are leavened by Jimmy’s internal optimism, fierce political vision and sardonic humor. But a witty remark can’t obscure the blood and death of the clashes back home. His writer/friend Lorraine insists that in its despair the country needs Jimmy’s voice to speak for Till and others; not just the voices deemed sanctified. Ultimately Jimmy confronts his father’s brutality and his insecurities realizing that “Books are my way of wringing life from death.”
Some of the voices Jimmy hears are real—from his present and his past—as well as one he’s imagined in his new book. This two-act play is a fictional drama, using none of Baldwin’s words.
Learn more at waiting4giovanni.blogspot.com
“Gomez and Waters have connected with a fascinating story both in terms of personal integrity and social responsibility; and its rewards are considerable.”
– Bay Area Reporter, September 2011
“Much of the play deals with the power of words, especially Baldwin’s fascination with and ability to use words. Along with the sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations, riots, and marches, the civil rights movement was a battle over the use of words and the perspectives they carried with them.
“‘Black’ sought to supplant “colored” and “Negro” and in time was itself succeeded by “African-American.” “Homosexual” and “deviant” were toppled by “queer” and “gay,” which in turn are now evolving into an ever-changing spectrum of more inclusive initials. More than acceptance and awareness, the fight for words has been a fight for pride.
“It is this conflict which Gomez captures so poignantly.”
– edgesanfrancisco.com 2011
“In her play Gomez sensitively and empathetically reveals her love, understanding and admiration of Baldwin’s work and the dilemma it presented.”
– San Francisco Bay Times 2011
– San Francisco Examiner 2011
“…a bold season opener…”
-San Francisco Chronicle 2011
“…genuine laughs during this powerful drama….”
– Donna Sachet On Line