Debate team to re-create Buckley vs. Baldwin in play at State

Cornell Speech and Debate Society members have a busy few weeks coming up as they prepare for the national championships and prelims.

On top of that, the students are trying on new roles – as actors.

On April 18, the ILR-based speech and debate team is hosting the second annual “Debate at the State” at Ithaca’s State Theater. The event is a play inspired by a classic 1965 debate at Cambridge University between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin. Tickets are $10 and are available at or at the door.

In last year’s inaugural “Debate at the State,” Cornell’s debate team took on Harvard on the topic, “Is Technology Driving the U.S. in the Right Direction?” Cornell won.

“This year we decided to try something a little different, and put on a play about a debate,” said Sam Nelson, senior lecturer at ILR and debate team director.

The team is partnering with Civic Ensemble, a local theater company, to put on the play. The play’s subject matter – Baldwin and Buckley debated the motion, “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” – is timely, given the heated rhetoric permeating today’s political debate, said Godfrey Simmons, Jr., senior lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Performing and Media Arts and artistic director of Civic Ensemble.

“This play offers a window into one way to deal with our [societal] issues,” Simmons said. “Debate allows you to have important conversations and have public forums.”

The collaboration between the Civic Ensemble and Cornell’s debate team is a natural fit, Simmons said.

“We always do work that is politically engaged, and I thought it’d be a good fit with the campus community – debate is a tentpole thing at Cornell,” Simmons said.

On May 1, the team goes to Norfolk, Massachusetts, to compete against the Norfolk Prison Colony Debating Society, of which Malcolm X was a member. The team is based at the medium-security prison MCI-Norfolk.

Nelson said debate is an essential part of a civil society.

“Debate is what we need right now given our current political dilemma,” he said. “We need to learn how to argue with people, but not hate them. We need to eliminate contempt from our rhetoric. We need an opportunity for people who disagree to exchange ideas, and debate is the way to do it.”

Cornell Speech and Debate has members from across the university. Its headquarters and debate space are in ILR’s Ives Hall. The coaching staff includes ILR staff members Armands Revelins, Johanna Richter, Estefania Palacios and Brandon Johnson, plus current ILR graduate students David Altorre Lopez ’20, Chris Fielder ’19, Ryan Marx ’20 and Daniel Yoon ’20. There are more than 100 students on the team.

Laura Carver, a graduate student at ILR, is an ILR Communications and Marketing Department writer.

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Gillian Smith