A reenacted dialogue between Black activist writers James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni on race and responsibility in Off-Broadway’s ‘Lessons in Survival: 1971’ at The Vineyard

During the pandemic closure of theaters in 2020, the grassroots theater collective The Commissary was formed. Its members gathered remotely each Wednesday on their digital devices to read plays and to investigate new material. When the news of the horrific death of George Floyd broke, actor Kyle Beltran (In the Heights; The Cherry Orchard) introduced the group to a resonant historic video from the 1970s that would inspire them to create an online anthology series called Lessons in Survival, exploring “difficult conversations on the path to collective liberation.”

Crystal Dickinson and Carl Clemons-Hopkins. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The current full-stage production of Lessons in Survival: 1971, now playing an Off-Broadway engagement at The Vineyard Theatre, is based on that iconic 1971 video of an interview the 28-year-old poet, educator, and militant Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) conducted with renowned writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin (1924-87), then 47. The extended dialogue, which was originally broadcast in two one-hour episodes on the WNET television series SOUL! –  a weekly variety show of the late 1960s to early 1970s, on which Giovanni was a regular, spotlighting African American music, dance, literature, and politics – has been recreated 50 years later as a live in-person verbatim reenactment, here condensed to 90 minutes.

Directed by Tyler Thomas, the provocative two-hander stars award-winning actors Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Crystal Dickinson as Baldwin and Giovanni. Both masterfully capture the distinctive speech patterns, demeanors, and attitudes (and even her spontaneous sneeze!) of their real-life characters and the magnitude of the words from a half-century ago that might have been spoken today, as they discuss and debate momentous issues of race and gender, politics and religion, sex and love, power and responsibility.

As Baldwin, Clemons-Hopkins is more conciliatory, controlled, and old-school gentlemanly, articulating his well-considered thoughts and empathetic justifications in a soft and knowing mature voice, while Dickinson becomes increasingly adamant as Giovanni, expressing the more radical and feminist beliefs of her younger generation. Despite their disagreements on some of the hot-button topics and linguistic concepts, they maintain their respect for one another, and both agree that love, listening, and responsibility are key. They also agree that critics (hated by Giovanni) shouldn’t review their works because they “try to hurt people” and “don’t understand” – so I’ll leave my analysis of their expressed views at that.

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Crystal Dickinson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The staging and artistic design shift the TV show’s talking-heads format to a more immediate, full, and intimate experience, as they move around and interact throughout the bi-level space, drinking and eating, chain-smoking (as was typical of the era), and removing their shoes to be more comfortable. You-Shin Chen’s scenic design and costumes by Mika Eubanks, though not exact replicas of those in the video, are evocative of the early post-modern time (as are the period-style exhibitions in the downstairs lobby, which contain furnishings and clips from contemporary TV shows). Lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, back-wall video projections by Josiah Davis, and Lee Kinney’s sound design with voiceovers effectively signal jumps to different points in the revelatory conversation.

While the acting, direction, artistic design, and still-timely subject matter of Lessons in Survival: 1971 are all compelling and skillfully executed, the production is not a play per se, it is a word-for-word recreation of a long socio-political discourse preserved in a vintage video that is readily available to everyone on YouTube. For those who expect a plot, narrative, or action, there is none, but there is a provocative reexamination of the divisiveness that continues to plague our country.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Lessons in Survival: 1971 plays through Thursday, June 30, 2022, at The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $36.75-103.95), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here