There are many literary reference points in Leslie Lee’s The Book of Lambert: Shakespeare, Byron, Chaucer, O’Neill, and Lanford and August Wilson. All of those authors, however, are filtered in Lee’s conception back to one source: The Bible. Lee, Like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison before him, has created an extremely Biblically-styled work about the crushing realities of racial politics.
Lee’s particular conception has some bold innovations, and the personal bond that he developed with the work, which he reworked for decades before its world premiere at La MaMa Playhouse, is readily apparent. Unfortunately, Lee lacks the power and grace in writing that his predecessors, at their best, were able to achieve.
The Book of Lambert takes an unprecedented approach in the history of African American dramatic literature. Informed by recent history—and with the advantage of his play being the first new drama by a major black playwright following President Barack Obama’s inauguration—Lee acknowledges that no matter how legitimate and overpowering racial strife may be, the experience of pain can only be felt on a personal level. Most of the play’s central characters are black, but while they are all squatting in an abandoned building outside the A train, each of their struggles comes from a particular set of grievances, a variety of circumstances in their separate histories.
This is in stark contrast to works like Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain or Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which each black character’s separate personal history is shaped by the same cultural narrative. In Lee’s world, there is an abundance of factors relatively independent of race, such as health, family, and sexuality, that are all variables in sorting out one’s lot in life.
In a particular act of bravery, Lee depicts the clearly autobiographical Lambert as struggling to maintain his own sense of blackness while dating a Caucasian woman, who haunts him long after the relationship deteriorates. Virginia is attracted to Lambert precisely because of his blackness, and Lambert’s attempts to keep up while embracing the world of Western—and mostly white—literature is a virtually impossible task; he can’t praise Defoe without Virginia wanting to talk about Langston Hughes. Virginia’s constant baiting of Lambert to “talk black” is met with painful awkwardness, as expressed by standout cast member Clinton Faulkner.
Ultimately, however, what degrades Lambert from the highs of academia to the slums of New York are his own personal failings, not the failing of an entire culture. I don’t know if Lee could have gotten away with such a play a few years ago, but that premise marks a bold new direction for African American literature as a whole, not just theater.
What plagues The Book of Lambert is how often Lee’s execution doesn't match the high level of his conceit. For a Biblical narrative to work, every word has to drip with a sense of deep, epic emotion without seeming self-important. This is a virtually impossible task, and even the best writers have only partially succeeded in maintaining such a high level (even the Bible). Over the course of the play's 150 minutes, Lee does occasionally reach poetic heights, but more often that elevated dialogue is cheapened with the kind of jive talk Lambert would naturally feel uncomfortable around. There are also times when the dialogue feels extremely childish, almost patronizing the audience.
It’s unclear whether the inconsistent maturity of Lee’s dialogue is a product of his struggle to achieve truly great literature, or of the same kind of insecurities Lambert feels in leaving his cultural roots. August Wilson, Baldwin, and others were often able to mix banter with heady philosophical speech effectively, yet Lee seems genuinely perplexed by how to achieve the correct balance. It’s no wonder The Book of Lambert proved a perpetual frustration to Lee over his career; he had a radical new conception of black literature, but lacked a practical way of expressing it.
On balance, however, at the end of the play, it feels like the successes of the content win out over the failures of style.
The Book of Lambert by Leslie Lee; directed by Cyndy A. Marion; set design by Andis Gjoni; lighting design by Russel Phillip Drapkin; costume design by David B. Thompson; music by Joe Gianono Fight; dramaturgy by Maxine Kern; choreography by Michael G. Chin.
Starring Clinton Faulkner (Lambert), Heather Massie (Virginia), Joresa Blount (Bonnie), Sadrina Johnson (Priscilla), Gloria Sauvé (Zinth), Arthur French (Otto), Howard L. Wieder (Clancy), and Omrae Smith (Miss Wambaugh).
The Book of Lambert runs through March 1 at La MaMa (74 A. East Fourth Street). Tickets can be purchased at LaMama.org.