Being Baldwinesque

I sat inside Bar Botanique on Amsterdam's east side with actor Charles Reese. Sat is not entirely accurate. When life's a stage and the restaurant resembles a cabaret, AND the soundtrack is Motown, a true thespian can't just sit there. So he sang, shimmied, and posed for my camera. When we returned to our seats, Charles spoke on travel and wellness, Baldwin and Kennedy over duck and feta. Below is the fabulous Mr. Reese, in his own words, on living a balanced, global, creative life.


There's a gospel song my sister used to sing on our way to Old Samaritan Baptist, our storefront church in the northwest section of Washington, DC.

I'm packing up, gettin' ready to go...

Got my sword, got my shield, got my ticket, signed and sealed.

Gettin' ready to go, gettin' ready to go.

I'm packing up, gettin' ready to go.

They're singing about heaven, but I use it to get ready for Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona. Packing is a healing thing, a tool for self-care. You can't take everything with you. You got to leave some stuff behind. And whatever you do put in the bag, that's what you'll have to deal with when you get to the other side. Before this tour of Europe, I helped with four funeral services for dear friends, almost back to back. There is no one solution for dealing with grief, but I cry my tears and I travel.


My name is Charles Reese. Often, I'm asked, "Are you an actor, writer, or producer? How do you make a living?" One day I just said, 'I am a Cultural Architect for Public Engagement.' I get to create conversations and entertain dialogues through many different mediums - poetry, performance, salons, speaking engagements, voice-overs, workshops, consulting, through web and television. It also best describes who I am when I'm doing my James Baldwin work.

I literally ran into Baldwin when I was a freshman at Morehouse College. It was a brief encounter. Racing across campus to make my curfew, I bumped into him. He looked at me. I looked at him. And he said, "My, you have eyes like mine." He was in town working on a story for Playboy on the Atlanta child-murders, which later became his book The Evidence of Things Not Seen.


After college, I went searching Paris for Baldwin with playwright Howard B. Simon. We did not find Mr. Baldwin anywhere in France. What we did discover, sometime later, was a beautiful collaboration which became the Off-Broadway play, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire. Howard Simon gifted me with this gem on my birthday. I had been in his ear about a one-man show. Instead he crafted a two-actor, historical fiction, that reimagines Baldwin alone with his thoughts before the 1963 secret meeting with Robert Kennedy. I became "Baldwin," the man, and Tony Award nominee, Forrest McClendon, originated the role of "Ethereal," a sort of inner psyche or soul of Baldwin. David DeWitt, of The New York Times, called the play "funny, thrilling and wise." After Simon's untimely passing, I was entrusted with his complete works which includes twelve plays, a collection of poetry, short stories, multiple essays, and an Emmy Award winning film, Just Passin' Through. Seven years ago, Soul on Fire was published through Glover Lane Press. I employ this printed version of the play to teach the legacies of both Simon and Baldwin at colleges and universities around the world. 


This is what brought me eighty miles south of Amsterdam to a fourteenth century castle in the Netherlands. I was asked to serve as Artist in Residence, at the invitation of Dr. Anthony L. Pinder and Professor Jabari Asim, ushering in the inaugural "James Baldwin Writers' Colony at the Emerson College European Center at Kasteel Well." Five young scholars are taking part this first year. They are tasked with creating new or revising works of fiction and nonfiction inspired by the literature of African-American expats. For the program, I lectured and performed, organized a film screening as well as a panel of expatriates in Paris. I also continued my healing journey, biking around, finding myself at a circus, claiming rooms in that castle, singing on Parisian stages, bearing witness to Baldwin's fiery spirit. It's almost time for me to head back home to Los Angeles. I don't see myself living full-time in Europe right now, but I welcome each opportunity to come here to recharge, remember, and rekindle these vital voices.


Interview & Photographs by Malika Ali Harding 

To learn more about Charles Reese and the James Baldwin Salon follow the respective links.

The views expressed are those of the interviewee and are not necessarily shared by Story Rebels or its founder.