“In the beginning there was the word,” intones WM. Hunter in the riveting opening moments of the world premiere of local literary luminary Jewelle Gomez’s new “dream play,” “Waiting for Giovanni” onstage at New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Hunter is not only an entrancing actor, but he’s also a startling James Baldwin look-alike and embodies that central character in authentic and impassioned ways.
The confluence of Hunter’s seamless portrayal and Gomez’s penetrating, poetic and empathetic look at the author’s inner turmoil is largely what makes this play resonate.
Gomez, in collaboration with the play’s director, Harry Waters Jr., zeros in on a particular moment of internal conflict in the famous Harlem-bred writer’s life.
It’s the mid-1950s, the civil rights era. Baldwin’s already a success from his first book, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and now he’s almost ready to publish “Giovanni’s Room,” about an American man in Paris, in love with an Italian.
The new novel is full of homoerotic content. Will his African-American friends and colleagues disparage him for writing about love and sex among white people in Paris, in the midst of black social and political upheaval in America?
Will his “Negro” readers abandon him? Will editors withhold the magazine assignments he needs for his livelihood? “Homosexuality is not the topic of my novel,” Baldwin protests, “love is the topic.” But he’s ambivalent.
In Gomez’s scenario, the writer hesitates over his typewriter as others materialize, pulling him in various directions: his worried white editor; novelist Richard Wright, who wants him to “shut his … mouth”; playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in despair over the famous murder of black teenager Emmett Till; brother David; seductive Frenchman Luc, with whom Baldwin lived in Paris; and, at times appearing as a shadowy silhouette, the alluring, fictional Giovanni.
Memories of his tyrannical pastor father surface, too. “You listen to too many voices,” Luc warns, as the confused Baldwin wavers over whether to publish “Giovanni’s Room”— and over the value of his own work in a changing world.
The play is a bit overlong: the arguments that paralyze Baldwin become repetitious. That minor problem aside, Gomez’s writing, and Hunter’s powerful presence on Kuo-Hao Lo’s spare and imaginative set, deserve better than this production.
The supporting cast ranges from serviceable to amateurish, the acting marred by caricatures, wooden line deliveries, awkward physicality and artificial laughter. It seems director Waters has not made allowances for his cast’s skill level.
Waiting for Giovanni
Presented by New Conservatory Theatre Center
Where: 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 18
Tickets: $24 to $40
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org