James Baldwin’s ‘The Amen Corner’ premieres in Seattle
During a rehearsal, the sounds of a vibrant gospel choir echo through the room, with Norman accompanying the actors on the piano. Such numbers capture the mood of the church where the dynamic and passionate preacher Sister Margaret (a central character based in part on Baldwin’s mother) and her driving choir are heard.
“Some of you say, ‘It’s okay to read funny newspapers,'” Margaret told her flock in a typically flamboyant sermon. “But children, yes, there is harm in that. As you read these funny journals, your mind is not fixed on the Lord. And if your mind isn’t set on Him, every hour of the day, Satan’s going to knock you down. Amen!”
It was in 1954 that Baldwin, 30, shortly after Go say it on the mountain was released to rave reviews, decided to try his hand at playwriting.
In an introduction to the published screenplay of The Amen Corner (the title refers to the section of a church where the most devout and vocal worshipers congregate), Baldwin asserted that “from the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of drama… “. What he aimed to accomplish with this art form was “to engage people, even against their will, to shake them up and hopefully change them”.
Sister Margaret (played here by Maiya Reaves) is an authoritarian and charismatic leader who presents herself as an abandoned wife, a protective parent to her teenage son David (Dimitri Woods), and a model of moral superiority and spiritual virtue. But a crisis ensues when the congregation begins to question his pious arrogance.
And when her jazz musician husband, Luke (Adrian Roberts), suddenly appears sick and helpless, they also question his honesty. The revelation that it was Margaret who abandoned Luke leads to her downfall within the church and estrangement from her son.
But the crisis also triggers a moment of “coming to Jesus” in Margaret’s soul – and her profound transformation from a “tyrannical matriarch”, as Baldwin put it, to a humbled, less rigid and more compassionate woman who “gets the keys to the kingdom, the kingdom is love, and love is selfless…”
“It’s a play about the impossibility of fleeing oneself. No matter what you run to, there’s no place you can hide that’s going to keep you from being honest with yourself about who you really are,” White says.