- The Amen Corner by James Baldwin
Often heralded as one of the most formidable and influential American novelists, essayists, and public intellectuals of the twentieth century, James Baldwin remains underappreciated as a playwright. While he did not contribute a vast body of work to the modern theatrical canon—only publishing two full-length plays during his lifetime—it is notable that drama was one of the forms Baldwin began experimenting with earliest in his career. Indeed, not long after achieving acclaim with his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Baldwin turned his attention to The Amen Corner (1954). The evocative three-act epic, which tells the story of Sister Margaret Alexander and the conflict-riddled storefront church she leads in Harlem, excavates and reckons with many of the moral, racial, and existential themes that preoccupied Baldwin during his early years as a “boy preacher” and would later become hallmarks of his work. In the soul-stirring, roof-raising revival she staged at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, director Whitney White surfaced fresh resonances and meanings in many of those themes and, in so doing, laid bare the enduring beauty and bounty of Baldwin’s dramatic imagination.
Baldwin sharpens particular focus on the spirit, rituals, and traditions of the Black church—and the contradictions there within—in his dramaturgy. White ensured that audiences remained immersed in these essential aspects of Black culture throughout her production. Daniel Soule’s scenic design helped set the tone and atmosphere from the outset. Heeding the call Baldwin offers in the play’s stage directions for a synthesis between the internal and external worlds, Soule placed center stage the mauve, carpet-lined interior of the church sanctuary that becomes the site of much of the play’s action, and surrounded it with towering brick walls (replete with terraces) that evoked the high-density housing complexes that continue to line many of the streets in Harlem. He positioned the apartment that Sister Margaret (Mia Ellis) shares with her teenage son David (Antonio Michael Woodard) and older sister Odessa (Harriet Foy) a level below the pulpit, outfitting the otherwise nondescript kitchen with a bright blue Frigidaire. The sprawling design provided a suitable backdrop for the powerhouse choir (skillfully led by music director Victor Simonson and comprised of some of the D.C. region’s most fiery and accomplished singer-performers) that White assembled to deliver renditions of classic spiritual and gospel tunes, inviting call and response throughout the performance. The environment also served as a potent visual representation of the tensions animating Baldwin’s text.
Sister Margaret’s very narrow convictions about what it means to live a righteous and sanctified life is the source of many of those tensions. While members of her church and family initially seem to align with her decidedly low tolerance for any demonstrations of worldliness, there are early signs of rifts and resentments. When, for example, Sister Margaret disapproves of Brother Boxer (Phil McGlaston), a loyal church elder, taking on a job delivering liquor, his wife, Sister Boxer (Deidra La-Wan Starnes), and the sanctimoniously chaste Sister Moore (E. Faye Butler) drop hints of their irritation about her intransigence. The trio becomes even more loose-lipped and defiant when Luke (Chiké Johnson), Sister Margaret’s estranged husband, unexpectedly shows up and exposes the fraudulence of her testimony about being abandoned. Butler’s turn as Sister Moore, who successfully leads a [End Page 91]
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campaign to have Sister Margaret relieved of her preacherly duties, was superlative, endowing the potentially insufferable figure with both levity and gravitas. She was well-matched by Harriet Foy’s nuanced rendering of the ever-protective Odessa, with whom she passionately spars throughout the play. Odessa perhaps understands better than anybody the profound pressure and scrutiny her sister faces...