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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jewelle Gomez Gets Inside the Head of Author James Baldwin in Waiting for Giovanni

Posted By on Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Poet and novelist Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, about black lesbian vampires. She has spent the past few years working on a play, Waiting for Giovanni, which is currently running at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. It was inspired by author James Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, about an American in Paris who has an affair with a man he meets at a gay bar. Gomez, who knows a little something about being told not to write about certain subjects, wanted to explore what it might have been like for Baldwin when he published his controversial book in 1956. We spoke with Gomez recently about the play.

Fred Pitts, WM.Hunter, and Desiree Rogers in Waiting for Giovanni. - LOIS TEMA
  • Lois Tema
  • Fred Pitts, WM.Hunter, and Desiree Rogers in Waiting for Giovanni.

How did James Baldwin influence you and your writing?

Baldwin was one of the first African-American writers I ever read, when I was about 15. Two things about him -- he had African American characters and characters who were gay. The third and most important thing probably is his use of language; it's always so fluid and rich. It was like you could read his books and almost taste the words. That just mesmerized me and kind of shaped how I think about writing, which is a good thing since mostly I've been writing vampire fiction, so having that kind of language really fit in.

There's a kind of rich vocabulary that he uses. ... and he's aware of the power of words. It's like a poet; a poet picks very precise words because a word has to convey a lot of meaning because there's so few of them. I love to go back to that complex relationship with words, so when you hear a word, you don't just hear it flat on the page or the stage, you hear a kind of resonance, that this sequence of words was chosen to convey an emotional response.

What was it about Giovanni's Room that led you to write Waiting for Giovanni?

When I started writing The Gilda Stories, a number of people said, 'You really should not write a black lesbian vampire. You don't really want to connect vampires to black people or vampires to lesbians because that's so negative.' And my feeling was it's not going to be the same old story.

So in thinking about Giovanni's Room, I had heard Baldwin had some trepidation about publishing it because it's gay and took place in France and did not have African American characters. I had dinner with an editor who had worked with Baldwin, and when I told him I was considering a play about Baldwin that might involve Giovanni's Room, his eyes lit up. He said, "Oh, that was a really important book, and people didn't want him to write it, and he got all kinds of flak for that." Then I realized, oh yeah, this is where I'm going. It's a big deal if you want to write something and people are telling you not to do it. It relates to the larger world. If there's something deeply meaningful to you in your heart, if someone tells you, "You can't do that, you're going to screw things up if you do that," that really hurts your heart. So I thought let me go inside his mind and imagine what it might have been like for him in the 1950s.

Why did you want this to be a play?

I've studied and taught playwriting. I had one play produced based on my vampire novel that toured the country and was here at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For this piece I collaborated with Harry Waters Jr., an old friend. We worked in theater in New York in the 1980s. He was in the original production here of Angels in America. Five or six years ago he said "I want you to write me something about James Baldwin," and I thought he meant a monologue. So I wrote that, and he said, "Oh, this is really lovely. Where's the rest of it?" This is the play that came out of that. Harry has acted as the dramaturge all along, and now he's directing it.

Why do you call it a "dream play?"

I'm going back to Strindberg, who said it's a piece based on a moment of unreality. It's not a biographical piece even though there are characters kind of based on real people. I'm not writing about a particular instance where Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin had a conversation, I'm writing about what's going on in his head. Which gives me a lot of leeway because I can write anything I want. [laughs]

Waiting for Giovanni is at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through Sept. 18. Admission is $25-$45.

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Emily Wilson

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