Metropolitan theatergoers will get a rare treat when James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” opens Feb. 11 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington with a new American version directed by Whitney White.
Published by the literary giant in 1954, “The Amen Corner” was first produced in May 1955 on the campus of Howard University and, over the years, has only occasionally been mounted. Through the trials of a Harlem pastor, she confronts the past she left behind when a figure from her troubled history returns. Baldwin explores the role of the church in the formation of Black identity and community.
For Baldwin fans, the play reveals a side of the Black intellectual that not many were acquainted with before. According to White, a recipient of the Susan Stroman Directing Award and an Artistic Associate at the Roundabout, “This is an incredible piece that is very different from Baldwin the activist, Baldwin the lecturer, or Baldwin the novelist.”
“Baldwin usually deals with racial issues between Blacks and Whites. Here he is looking within the Black community and talking about what happens when they cast their own out for their survival. It is a Black story with complicated portraits of humanity in how the Black characters are portrayed. They are not perfect or infallible. They are trying the best that they can.”
In the play, the pastor, Sister Margaret Alexander (Mia Ellis), has her faith challenged when her estranged husband, Luke, (Chike Johnson) returns. Trying to find his own identity outside of the confines of the church is their son, David, (Antonio Michael Woodard). The play explores the dynamics of their dysfunctional family and each character’s struggle with faith and fulfillment. As her past comes to light, it also causes disharmony within the congregation of Sister Margaret’s storefront church.
For White, the play confronts a multitude of issues that she, as a product of a single-parent home, resonates closely. “It’s a tragedy of the Black American family and a broken Black home. It’s a love story, and a play about the safety and power of the church, as well as its hypocrisy. It’s a play about the very special condition of the Black American woman and a woman’s life as a never-ending fight with men. It’s a play about the ever-presence of street life.”
“The Amen Corner” had its most successful run to date when an acclaimed 2013 production at London’s National Theatre breathed new life into the show. STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin saw the revival and stated, “I was moved by the depth of feeling in Baldwin’s characters; the domestic and spiritual tragedies we see so often in Shakespeare’s works and the play’s classical structure. Then I learned this play had a D.C. legacy, having first premiered at Howard University in the 1950s. I knew then this would be a perfect work to include in my first season: a true American classic.”
For White, referring to the piece as a classic is apt and appropriate. “It’s a tragedy that Baldwin’s playwriting was limited to two plays. His other play was “Blues for Mister Charlie” (written in 1964).
He was making these epics on the scale of a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. The idea of the American classic is expanding to include more stories from the American population. It is not just about white people and Shakespeare.”
In the play, Sister Margaret rails at her congregation, her estranged husband and her teenaged son for their vices. Her overbearing and superior attitude causes her to fall out of favor with many. However, White says, “I don’t think she is a villain. They were living in a time that was difficult for black people due to a lack of resources and poverty that contributed to our lives back then. The family fell apart due to circumstances. Neither she or Luke was wrong, and neither was right. The tragedy was that it could not work.”
For gospel music lovers, the play is infused with several Negro spirituals “that really wake you up,” said White. Returning to Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) are cast members E. Faye Butler, Jade Jones, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and Nova Y. Payton.
In conversation with “The Amen Corner,” STC will host a series of special events titled Amen, Baldwin! A Living Celebration throughout February and March. On Feb. 2, STC also will offer free tickets to the public to attend an open rehearsal of the play at 2:30 and 4 p.m. To reserve tickets, visit the Shakespeare Theatre’s website at http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.