Q&A with Bill T. Jones: The Live Ideas Festival Honors James Baldwin

LaMont Hamilton

The accomplished choreographer and director talks about this year’s celebration of the legendary writer in New York.

Since the early 1980s, choreographer and director Bill T. Jones (pictured here) has been known for his work that attacks themes of politics, history and humanity with uncommon sensitivity. It seems only natural, then, that he would join in on the celebration of another famed artist known for his insights on the issues: writer James Baldwin.

In collaboration with New York’s yearlong, city-wide celebrations for the Year of James Baldwin, New York Live Arts—for which Jones serves as executive artistic director—presents the second annual Live Ideas Festival: James Baldwin, This Time! (April 23–27; 212-924-0077; newyorklivearts.org/liveideas). Co-curated with writer Lawrence Wechsler, the event is a far-reaching affair incorporating theater, art, dance and music, as well as notables like Jamaica Kincaid and Fran Lebowitz. Here, Jones discusses Baldwin’s legacy and its influence on his own art.

Q: You’ve secured so many great artists and performers for the festival. What about Baldwin’s work invites such myriad interpretations?
A: I think he truly is one of the greatest writers this country has produced in the mid-20th century. His accomplishment is very much one of a man of letters who had something relevant to say during his time—and I daresay it is still relevant now. Of course with the issue of race, which even in his time was prismatic or nuanced, and now, many years since the civil rights era, we still have a kind of intractable problem. He also talks about the issue of class and a kind of personal honesty. Baldwin leveled that criticism at American society in general—the difficulty of dealing with the reality of our person and our history. Those things have become only more obfuscated in our era.

Q: Did his work make an impression on you as a young man? Do you see new things in it now?
A: I did read the significant texts—Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, The Fire Next Time. At the time, I think I was too distracted by the pull of the whole question of Malcolm X as opposed to Martin Luther King—the counterculture’s read on what revolution and personal freedom were against the civil rights struggle—to truly understand what I was reading. And I had difficulty tracking Giovanni’s Room when I was a younger man—I tried it maybe three or four times, but I was so put off and frightened by the description of the gay life in Paris in the 1950s. I was busy trying to live gay liberation without shame. Now, going back to it, I’m seeing there is a masterfully written book with something to say not only about homosexuality but the idea of honesty and truth, which is a bigger subject.

Q: Has his work informed your own before? And after putting together this festival, do you see ways it might affect upcoming projects?
A: For some of us of a certain generation, James Baldwin is literally a whole worldview. Reading him at age 17 and the kind of sexual matchup, the racial matchup, the ruminations on art and success and failure and marketplace, I felt I was having a ringside seat on a very important discourse, and that changed me. My feeling is that an artist should be free, should be a truth teller, and I think something about Baldwin’s voice said, “Don’t be afraid. Go for it.” And I hadn’t even thought of that until I began working on this festival. Going forward? I don’t know. I am not the prophet that he is, a fortune-teller about my own work.