Jewelle Gomez is coming back to New York City.
The award-winning writer and activist arrives next week for the New York premiere of her new play, “Waiting for Giovanni,” written with Harry Waters, Jr.
“Waiting for Giovanni,” inspired by James Baldwin writing the novel “Giovanni’s Room,” directed by Mark Finley, and presented by TOSOS, begins previews July 12 and opens July 17 at The Flea.
“I feel very lucky,” said Gomez, who lives in San Francisco and whose latest honor was being named Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride.
Her play premiered at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco in 2011, and Gomez has been looking for a New York production. TOSOS read the play in its Robert Chesley/ Jane Chambers Playwrights Project and asked if it could open its season at The Flea with “Giovanni.”
Gomez came to New York for auditions, but has not been at rehearsals and said she’s “very, very excited” to see a “new” play — she revised it for the New York premiere.
“From the auditions, I had distinct impressions of the actors,” she said. “I could hear their voices in my head as I was cutting, and I felt like I was giving the actors more to play with.”
She ended up cutting as she revised.
“I tightened the play I’m hoping by about 15 minutes,” she said. “You know what they say: if there are scenes you think are so juicy you can’t bear to get rid of them, you should start cutting with them. I started with two particular scenes I liked a lot. Without these two, the play feels firmer. I was happy with it.”
The cast of “Waiting for Giovanni” features Jonathan Dewberry as Jimmy, Joy Sudduth as Lorraine Hansberry, Neil Dawson, Jordan J. Adams, Robert Walker Jeffrey, Ken Simon, and Michael Striano.
“I’m very excited to see how the play stands out in the world on its own and how another director is able to shape it with his vision,” Gomez said.
“Baldwin is enjoying a rediscovery at the moment,” director Finley noted. “Not only, I think, because of his work’s eloquence but because of its stark relevance 50 years later.
“The thing I’m looking for most is a radical reinterpretation of the work,” Gomez said.
“Waiting for Giovanni” began as a monologue and led to a long-term project for Gomez, who is in the midst of writing a trilogy about the lives of queer artists of color at a specific time in the 20th century.
“Giovanni” began when Waters (an actor and director who played the role of Belize in the original production of “Angels in America”), said to Gomez, “Write me something about James Baldwin.”
“Baldwin had always been one of my favorite writers,” Gomez said. “I first read him when I was about 14. I don’t think I understood about half of what I read! So I wrote a monologue, and Harry read it and said, ‘Where’s the rest of it? I want a play!’”
Gomez said she had trouble figuring out an entry point for the play, then had the sort of lucky coincidence that can spark a new work. At a dinner she’d accompanied her friend Dorothy Allison to, she got into a conversation with another guest who had been an editor of Baldwin’s. They had a long conversation, and Gomez found her way into the play.
“He said two important things: One is that he could never figure out when Baldwin wrote, because he was always socializing. And that Baldwin was very hurt by some of the grief he was given by people who didn’t think he should publish ‘Giovanni’s Room.’ And that’s how I started writing the play: those were the elements that humanized him for me. I was no longer writing a play about the great, famous James Baldwin, I was writing about a young writer, Jimmy, who is terrified of what is this book going to mean in the world.”
As she researched and wrote, Gomez said that one of the things that she was trying to convey was the sense of the writer’s community, surrounded by brilliant talent.
“One of the amazing things about the writers is their sense of hope,” Gomez said. “It was very clear, if they could do the work they needed to do, there was hope for our future in this country. That level of hope felt palpable to me. I felt like there was a certain shift somewhere in the ‘60s where people had less hope.”
Gomez pointed to the losses sustained by the African-American community in the 1960s.
“This started earlier, once it was pointed out to African-Americans just how hateful the rest of the country was, and just how far it would go, starting with killing Martin Luther King,” she said. “Hope seemed to diminish, and you started getting things like instead of trying to change the country’s attitude, young black men wanted to emulate the capitalist oppressors, wearing gold dollar signs, wearing grills in their mouths, and calling their sisters ‘bitches’ in emulation of capitalist pigs, as opposed to changing the culture that was oppressing us.”
Gomez said she was interested in finding out more and writing about the period when hope “still felt like it was happening.”
As she worked, Gomez realized that she wanted to write a trilogy. She has since written “Leaving the Blues,” a play with music about singer Alberta Hunter, which was produced at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre in 2017. She’s currently working on “Unpacking in Ptown,” which is set to be produced in 2020 by NCTC.
In addition to performances of “Waiting for Giovanni,” there will be a post-show panel about Baldwin on July 14, featuring Gomez, writer Kaylie Jones, a family friend of Baldwin’s, and Baldwin scholar Rich Blint.
There will also be a celebration of what would have been Baldwin’s 94th birthday following the performance on August 2, with a cake and champagne reception.
No doubt James Baldwin, that social butterfly, would approve.
WAITING FOR GIOVANNI | The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas St., btwn. Broadway & Church St. | Jul. 12-14, 17-21, Jul. 25-28, Aug. 1-4 at 7 p.m. | $30 at theflea.org/.