Charlotte Brathwaite NYT production review

Review: ‘Can I Get a Witness?’ Takes James Baldwin’s Message to Church

Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin

  • NYT Critics’ Pick
  • Off Off Broadway, Play
  • 1 hr. and 20 min.
  • Closing Date: December 11, 2016
  • Harlem Stage at The Gatehouse, 150 Convent Ave.
  • 212-650-7100

A fierce tide of feeling — rage and despair, love and hope and exaltation — courses through “Can I Get a Witness?,” an almost indefinable work of music theater created by the performer and musician Meshell Ndegeocello, and inspired by “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin’s incisive polemic about race in America, first published in 1963.

Produced by Harlem Stage, where it runs through Sunday, the performance is subtitled “The Gospel of James Baldwin,” and indeed it mimics the format of a religious service. Some audience members sit in pews, and we are each given the “order of service.” A few performers wear costumes, inventively designed by Abigail DeVille, that look vaguely ecclesiastical — but with flashes of color and brocade and even gaudy jewels. Ms. Ndegeocello, who plays bass and presides loosely over the proceedings, wears a priestly robe of silver and blue. Several segments incorporate call-and-response; there’s even a moment when we are given small glasses of water to drink, although there’s no suggestion that it’s particularly holy.

One wonders what Baldwin, who was a preacher in his teenage years but later took a dim view of organized religion, would think about a tribute to his work styled this way. Then again, the production, created in collaboration with and directed by Charlotte Braithwaite, is equally a rousing musical performance, with the band mostly performing in the center of the space and the audience surrounding it.  MORE

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