Actors bring James Baldwin to life during summer artist residency program

By Lisa Martin

For two weeks this summer, celebrated actors, Delroy Lindo and Carl Lumbly, developed a one-man play, “Jimmy: According to Me…” at City College of San Francisco’s Diego Rivera Theater for an artist residency program. The play follows the life of famous poet and social commentator, James Baldwin.

Carl Lumbly has been acting in theater, television, and movies for decades and currently has reoccurring roles on the shows Supergirl and NCIS: Los Angeles. He is perhaps best known for his role as CIA agent Marcus Dixon on the hit television show “Alias”, which ran for five seasons from 2001-2006.

Delroy Lindo is an award-winning actor and director who is best known for his role as Bo Catlett in the movie Get Shorty and for his role as West Indian Archie in the film Malcolm X. He currently stars in CBS’s television show “The Good Fight” as Adrian Boseman.

Lumbly wrote, “Jimmy: According to Me…” in hopes that one day James Baldwin’s name would be as recognized as Beyoncé’s.

“I’m not an expert on James Baldwin, but I am an expert, the world’s expert, on what James Baldwin means to me,” Lumbly said.

Lumbly approached Delroy Lindo, a longtime friend, to direct and develop the play into, as Lindo would put it, “an evening of theater.”

Bringing Jimmy to City College

It was Lindo’s idea to bring the early process of this development to City College. Lindo had done a similar residency program at Diablo Valley College that combined working with silent student observers and then engaging with them by giving them pointers by way of a workshop. It was through the program at Diablo Valley that Lindo met Michael Almaguer, now the associate vice chancellor of centers, school deans, faculty evaluation, and tenure review at City College.

“We were almost not going to do it,” Almaguer said, “The actors only confirmed their availability in mid-May, which didn’t leave much time to prepare or advertise the program to students. Ultimately, the school administration decided this would be a good opportunity for students anyway and that they would, ‘make the best of it even though it was summer.’”

Lumbly and Lindo began working at the Diego Rivera Theater on June 11 and presented the play on June 27 with a second performance on the 29th.

During this time, a flexible schedule was set for students and classes to quietly observe their process with the opportunity to approach both actors and ask any questions about their play, Baldwin, or even their own student work. Almaguer estimated that roughly 70 students came to see them work, either as curious individuals or as members of visiting classes.

The advice most often sought by students was life advice. An example given by Lindo, “in the absence of affirmations for oneself, where do we create that for ourselves?”

The Poet and the Process

This play represented the very beginning of Lindo and Lumbly’s collaboration. By the time of the last rehearsal, Lumbly’s movements were blocked, but even though he was still reading from a script, he remained in character, embodying Baldwin with a cigarette in one hand and papers in the other.

“Carl has been extraordinary in the process,” Lindo said, “The magnitude of Carl’s commitment matches his talent.”

For Lumbly, having worked with Lindo on this play has been his way to reconnect to the core traditions of the theater.

“You amass a body of work and people say that’s what you do,” Lumbly said, adding that it is important to continuously grow.

Lumbly, the writer of Jimmy: According to Me…, has a poetic way with words that is instantly apparent when you speak to him. A piece of writing advice you may often hear is to always use the first word that comes to mind. It will let you to keep your words simple and therefore allowing you to sound more natural in your own voice.

This does not seem to apply to Lumbly, who can fluidly use the word ossify in a conversation, only to correct himself with a self-deprecating laugh because he does not want to use a word so closely associated with aging. He then quickly leaps from metaphor to metaphor.

The process of working with Lindo in an environment that encourages students to observe them at work is like, “being shaken out of my rigidity,” Lumbly said. He sees himself as a student as well – eager for his opportunity to learn what he can from his director and friend, Lindo.

After the show premiered, Lindo complimented Lumbly on his “facility with language,” saying that, “tonight I heard that as keenly as I ever had.”

Lindo, as a director, is exact and straight-to-the-point. He is quick to give corrections and just as quick to give “thank you’s.” During rehearsal, he noticed all the small details – lighting, timing, sound cues, a crew member who nearly missed the stairs when she dashed off the stage – before anyone else. Lindo interrogated the continuity of an ashtray from scene to scene.

“It does not exist until we need it to exist,” he said, “and we don’t need it to exist now.”

“I’m looking to help the actor flesh the material out, identify what the piece is about, what story do you want to tell audiences, and how do I then help the actor to formulate and form that as a piece of theater,” Lindo said.

More Development to Come

On the night of the first performance, Chancellor Mark Roche welcomed the audience and later moderated a Q&A with the actor and director.

The June performances will not be the final form of the play. Both, Lumbly and Lindo, agreed that there was still work to be done before this play was finished.

“I blush a little bit when you [Roche] refer to it as a performance,” Lindo said, “these are baby steps in an exploration. We are at the base camp and we’ve yet to start scaling the mountain.”

For Lumbly, this will mean returning to writing. The play, as it was presented, has three movements that represent the life of James Baldwin. The first movement encompasses a ghost in a liminal space between life and death known as the Bardo. The second movement outlines Baldwin’s childhood and education. The third shows his transition from preacher to writer. The play does not expand on any other parts of Baldwin’s life or work.

Lindo said that at this point, he is still interested in continuing to direct “Jimmy: According to Me…,” then he turned to the audience to inquire, “if there are any producers out there – I am not joking.”

So the challenge for City College is to figure out how to formalize an artist residency program for future opportunities.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from department chairs, who are really excited that [the school] is doing this,” Almaguer said, adding that with more time to plan the coordinating coursework and to broadcast the program, they will be able to make the program more beneficial to students.

“Jimmy: According to Me…” played to a nearly full theater. With only roughly two weeks’ worth of work, Lumbly performed as James Baldwin, reading from script, but still in character. The ashtray did not exist until it did – until it was needed.

Lumbly closed the performance to applause and mouthed the words, “Thank you. Thank you,” as he bowed.

The Guardsman