During my recent trip to London, I had the opportunity to see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre (best theatre in the world, in my humble opinion). I had been familiar with Baldwin’s novels and essays but never his work for the stage. So this was an opportunity to dive into what was for me an unknown corner of the Baldwin canon.
Benefitting a show at the National, the production was magnificent. Both the gospel choir and jazz trumpet provided texture as well as counterpoint to the drama enacted on stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Secrets and Lies fame) was a revelation as Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a corner church up in Harlem in the 1950’s. Director Rufus Norris recreated Harlem of that era magnificently.
But what I went for was the play. And did I get a play. Written in 1954 after the author had completed his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, Amen Corner distinguishes itself for the beauty of its language (this is Baldwin after all) and the complexity of emotions that inform that language. There isn’t a Caucasian character on stage and white America is rarely mentioned, but the audience can feel its presence. Those who attend and lead the church are, for the most part, domestics and servants. Church provides for them an escape but also an opportunity, even if one day a week or late at night, to take charge of their destinies. At the center of the drama are four very strong women who to one degree or another must negotiate the city and life on their own. There are no clear heroes or villains here. Even Sister Moore as she tries to undermine Margaret’s authority is often more tolerant of other people’s life choices than her pastor is.
Margaret is faced with a series of crises in the play. Her wayward husband, Luke (a jazz musician), returns home after a number of years. He is the opposite of everything Margaret in her role as pastor stands for. Luke, however, is dying and wishes to spend his final days with his family. Her son, David, does not wish to continue playing piano for the church, but instead wishes to be a jazz musician like his father. And then there is the rebellion led by Sister Boxer and Sister Moore. What unfolds are the myriad reasons — personal, emotional, intellectual, spontaneous, revelatory — that brought Margaret to a life serving God. Baldwin expertly intertwines all of these reasons to create a full-blooded three-dimensional character. If at that end, we still cannot fully embrace Margaret, we have a thorough understanding and respect of her. We know from Baldwin’s biography that he had a difficult time with organized religion, but he has the compassion to compose a thoughtful and well-balanced portrait.
Of course, as I sat in the theatre in London, I could not help but ask myself, “Why isn’t this play being done in America?” This is an important and vital work — more alive and less musty than other plays from this period we venerate — and tells an important story, like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about both the African-American experience and women’s experiences. So, theatre producers, find a way to put this provocative important beautiful play on stage here in the States. It deserves to be seen.