At its Sidney Harman Hall, The Shakespeare Theatre has mounted what may be the quintessential production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner.
The Amen Corner is set in a church: a Black church. What resonance does that have for us as an audience?
“..the black church is a very particular creation, having almost nothing whatever to do with what white people think of when they come to church. It’s the only institution first of all that our masters let us have – not so much let us have as they couldn’t prevent us from using. We created it against the will of the people who held us in captivity. The black preacher was our first revolutionary: the first subversive. He was the one who made sense out of it, He was not counseling reconciliation to slavery. He was counseling a means of outwitting it.” – James Baldwin, interview with Kay Bonetti
I was “raised” in a holiness church, a holy-roller church: specifically, The Church of God in Christ. The concept of adults referring to each other as anything other than Brother Smith or Sister Williams or Mother Jackson – never entered my imagination [except as part of the liquid imagery of the television screen] until I entered public school and began attending kindergarten, I was one of the first generation to attend public school after the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision was issued, so this marked my first encounter with white people in an organized, institutional way. (And it’s notable that this encounter was not part of slavery, prison or share-cropping. It took effort to make this encounter possible.)
The phenomenon of adults calling each other Brother and Sister reflects the practice of commercial breeding of human beings, to which my ancestors were likely to be subjected as enslaved people. It reflects the separation of enslaved people and selling and dispersing us so widely that there was no telling whether a stranger that you met might in fact be a relative of yours, no matter how far you were from where you started. The man you kill by the side of the road might very well be your father. The woman you fall in love with could be your mother or sister. Shades of Oedipus.
This is the crucible into which James Baldwin immerses us for The Amen Corner. This play has often been treated either as melodrama or as slice-of-life social realism: ultimately an entertaining but dismissible item in the endless flood of commercial theatrical product. I think that’s a mistake.
Our only workable comparison for a play as serious and substantive as this, as folks with Eurocentric reference points, is to Shakespeare or Greek tragedy. And the purpose of – or at least result of – encountering drama in those categories is to prod us/ prepare us to become human beings and citizens rather than mere consumers.
I suggest that The Amen Corner embodies a dramaturgy that people of African heritage brought with us and (despite arguments that we came with nothing, retained nothing) which we managed to maintain by way of various forms of syncretism, adaptation and appropriation.
The Amen Corner closes March 15, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The language of The Amen Corner undulates with a musicality and nuance that one rarely, if ever, finds in conventional English. We are fortunate to have someone like E. Faye Butler who clearly knows where this language comes from and how it is used in its cultural context. Her performance takes full advantage of that knowledge, implementing a nasality and intonation that we are only used to hearing in various non-English Asian, African or Polynesian languages. Under Ms. Butler’s linguistic mastery, not merely every sentence, but every word in each sentence and sometimes each syllable in one word may carry multiple shifts of meaning. This is not mere “cultural competence.”
In her embodiment of Sister Moore, Ms. Butler demonstrates that she is – like such international treasures as Sidiki Diabate (“the king of kora”), Ali Akbar Kahn (sarod player), Tamasaburo Bando (kabuki actor), and Ravi Shankar (sitar player) – a repository for representative essential aspects of an entire culture.
Music and dance in this play are used to engage audience, performers and characters in a ritual, the purpose and meaning of which is communally shared and understood and for which vocal response from the audience, far from being intrusive (and, thus, providing an opportunity for corrective “shushing” on the part of presumed better educated audience members), is expected. The songs are not merely entertainment. Director Whitney White does an excellent job of displaying this aspect of the production.
The phrase “the amen corner” denotes a physical place in the church to the side of the pulpit, where sanctified worshipers who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior – or who are working in that direction – sit and lead and encourage responses of the congregation to the sermon. The phrase can also identify that group itself of sanctified, committed and literally enthusiastic worshipers, no matter where they are positioned in the church. More secularly and slyly applied, it can also mean your personal cheerleading crew.
Sister Margaret has several amen corners: Sister Margaret’s son David, her pianist for the church service and her personal accompanist, constitutes one kind of amen corner. Her sister Odessa is another amen corner. The members of the church board Mother Moore, Brother Boxer, et al constitute an amen corner. And the entire church itself constitutes an amen corner, a wall and a defense and a support against the troubles and dangers of ‘the world’: alcoholism and prostitution and white people of which the other two dangers are consequences of the confinement white society has set up for Black folk. Baldwin presents them as people banded together under religious slogans much like everyone bands together in order not to be terrified of the dark. And he makes it clear that’s no way to live. The play focuses on Margaret’s journey to see the devastation that the pursuit of safety brings about.
Despite the catastrophe that has been wrought on the characters’ lives by imposition of the pursuit of whiteness, white people are only indirectly referred to in this play and not by their whiteness but only as “the woman that I work for” and as people who, it is understood, will not be entering the kingdom of heaven.
Regardless of what “white people” who choose to continue living under the illusion of whiteness choose to do, in this play Baldwin focuses on the need for Black people to do something essential: to resist pressure to do otherwise and, instead, fight to become fully human: just as the music Black Americans have produced has demonstrated and continues to invite us to do. As Baldwin says elsewhere: “I don’t want to become “white”. I want to grow up. And you should too.”(Baldwin, The View From Here, a National Press Club Address)
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It’s worth noting that the pilgrimage and possible journeys of The Black American Boy as he enters adolescence is a subject of inquiry that occupies a number of Washington, DC stages this season. From Pipeline at Studio Theatre, to The Till Trilogy at Mosaic: from Fences at Fords to The Amen Corner at The Shakespeare Theatre. Why this raft of stories should rise to our notice at just this time, as “inner cities” and “urban landscapes” are being ravenously transformed into owning-class playgrounds, is not a question that I’m equipped to answer. But I do think that this question forms part of the context we might want to be aware of as a community of theater audiences, craftspersons and others, as we decide what to go see and as we think about what to say to each other, about what we have seen and what the things we have seen mean to us. (And as we consider how the things we have seen resonate against the background of the blatant plutocracy, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and authoritarianism that permeates the United States today.)
Maybe it is because of this context in which we are currently experiencing theater that we are suddenly able to hear and reconsider the so-called “prophetic” witness of James Baldwin in the public square as being relevant again.
I hope this production inspires other theaters across the country to embrace producing and learning from Baldwin’s plays (there are only 2) with the same thespian enthusiasm with which they have learned to embrace August Wilson. That would be a good thing.