Upon announcing its upcoming season this past spring, the Guthrie Theatre received a barrage of criticism for its show selections: a group of plays overwhelmingly white and male, in terms of both playwrights and directors. In particular, theatregoers from scholars like Jill Dolan to leading voices in the development of new work like Polly Carl critiqued the Guthrie’s selections as lacking the diversity necessary for the continual growth and development of American theatre. However, just as the Guthrie found itself at the center of this diversity debate, the theatre produced new work by two Twin Cities companies dedicated to broadening and enriching the scope of American theatre through the lens of the African American experience. In May, the Guthrie presented a Penumbra Theatre production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner (1954), while a smaller studio theatre hosted Carlyle Brown and Company’s new work Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . (2012), which explores Langston Hughes’s McCarthy hearing. Although vastly different in scale and style, the Penumbra and Carlyle Brown productions both portrayed American experiences indelibly molded by the forces of bigotry. In particular, The Amen Corner offered a story of not only black spiritual life, but also a narrative that specifically spoke to the intersection of black spirituality and female leadership within the church. Thus while the Guthrie’s next season will largely exclude reflections of America beyond mainstream white culture, this past spring the theatre center challenged its audience to engage with culturally specific theatre-making that spoke to often-silenced histories, as well as to the more expansive thinking of smaller theatre companies in the Twin Cities.
The Amen Corner, Baldwin’s first play, crafts a complex landscape of black spirituality. Baldwin interweaves the day-to-day political machinations of a Harlem church with the secular materiality of neighborhood life surrounding the church, and in doing so contrasts the dogmatic power structures that allowed church leaders to develop incontestable voices with the spiritual and familial love very much alive in these same spaces. Given that Baldwin himself served as a Pentecostal youth pastor in Harlem, threads of autobiography undeniably run through the play. With this production, Penumbra [End Page 113]
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artistic director Lou Bellamy presented his audience with a black spiritual celebration accompanied by the multifaceted, interpersonal dynamics that underscored such practices. Bellamy took the work of an inexperienced playwright and grounded it in the cultural specificity of mid-twentieth-century Harlem, creating a world full of spiritual, cultural, and familial tensions.
Upon entering the expansive Wurtele Thrust Stage, The Amen Corner’s audience was presented with a moving and breathing slice of Harlem street life. Scenic designer Vicki Smith structured a three-tiered set anchored in back center stage with a storefront church, complete with long painted-glass windows and a red velvet chair awaiting its pastor. Below the heights of the church sat Pastor Margaret Alexander’s minimal kitchen—signaled by linoleum floors and a shiny new Frigidaire. Further downstage, Margaret’s son’s bedroom featured basic furniture and a record player. Smith ensconced these spaces with Harlem itself. Sidewalks book-ended stages left and right, and each led to a fully developed city streetscape that encircled the entire back wall of the space. In the street behind the church the audience could glimpse liquor stores, billiard halls, and the edges of rundown apartments. These spaces were filled with the life of the community: sailors, grifters, choir members, young girls in pigtails, boys in high-top converse sneakers, church ladies, cops, and drunkards. Even as the houselights slowly dimmed, Bellamy allowed this unscripted, everyday action to unravel for almost ten minutes before the first lines were spoken. The impact of his choice was undeniable...