Apainful portrait of James Baldwin near the end of his powerful career, when he was drinking too much and writing too little, “The Midnight Hour” takes place on the 10th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Abandoned by the civil rights movement and by his current lover, desperate to believe — in himself, in love, in the value of commitment — the Baldwin of this one-man show is not the hero his audiences came for.
It is hard to know what impulse is behind this quiet, pathos-filled profile written by Baldwin’s biographer at the behest of the show’s star, Reggie Montgomery. Baldwin takes us back to his early days of rage in Paris and launches into his “Martin was my brother” bit again and again, until he hears his own voice ring hollow.
He recites a paranoid litany over and over:”Medgar, Malcolm, Martin and me,” wondering if he will be the next to be murdered. He talks to us, offers us drinks, answers the phone (tapped by the FBI?), rants about his publishers (the collective Bobs), and now and then dips into a trunkful of old clothes to retrieve the past (a corny contrivance).
As directed by Walter Dallas (a friend of Baldwin’s for many years), Montgomery never inhabits the role but, rather, imitates the famous man’s flamboyant mannerisms, veering perilously close to caricature. In some of the show’s most intense moments, Montgomery uses the style he used in “The Colored Museum” to mighty peculiar effect: Is it the actor or the self-mocking character who is parodying Baldwin? This crucial lack of clarity skews James Campbell’s play and allows us to withhold the sympathy we extend to, say, Robert Morse’s Truman Capote.
The show’s most successful device is a TV — ostensibly part of the room, but facing us. We see, as Baldwin sees, the talking head he had become, and the parade of “little actors playing me”– the American in Paris, the witty cocktail party guest, the voice of black rage. The TV is even more interesting when the talkshow yields to vintage movies and Bette Davis is once again threatening a bumpy night. When she lights a cigarette, Baldwin lights a cigarette in the room; his confessed identification with her (bug-eyed, female, white) has rich “M. Butterfly” potential, which, disappointingly, is never developed.
“I used to roast their asses with rhetoric,” Baldwin declares, half proudly, half ruefully, knowing that “perfectly crafted sentences” won’t do anymore, and that his task now is to write sentences that “break bones and give black eyes.” But whose bones? Whose eyes? The play’s focus wavers between intimate biography and social history, never quite merging Baldwin’s complex doubts and disappointments about himself with those about the world. Prophet, martyr or has-been? Baldwin didn’t know, and, unfortunately, neither does the playwright — and so, neither do we.