James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”
In 1965, the same year that the landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law and only one year after the signing Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lloyd Richards’ production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner toured the European theatre festival circuit, hitting stops in Austria, England, France, and the Netherlands. Though written in Paris, Baldwin’s The Amen Corner is generally understood within the canon of African-American theatre. Throughout its development, African- American theatre has often dealt with questions of race and race relations in different ways. It has been written for white audiences, for black audiences, and for integrated audiences. However, it has almost always been written for American audiences. In many ways, the story of black life in America is a very uniquely American story. The history of the United States’ chattel slavery system along with the trouble of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws that followed it, and the scars that this history left in the relationship between black and white people in the United States had no European corollary. For this reason, American theatre about race relations must have read somewhat differently for European audiences. As a production with an entirely black cast, the 1965 tour of The Amen Corner offered European audiences a glimpse at a kind of theatre that they were largely unaccustomed to seeing. Because of this rare opportunity, combined with its timing, European audiences fully expected to see a play that dealt directly with race relations and civil rights. Despite European critics’ perceptions that The Amen Corne does not explicitly handle the issue of race relations, an analysis of the text reveals that it uses the racialized version of Christianity unique to Harlem as an avenue for discussing the black community’s struggles with family, poverty, and faith in the United States.
In its 1965 touring production, The Amen Corner’s racial message failed to translate to European audiences. In 1965, after years of highly publicized civil rights struggles (during which James Baldwin was a very loud voice in the artistic community), Europe was likely poised to see a play about this struggle that they’d heard so much about. One Vienna critic’s principal issue with the piece, which he pointed out in an early notice, was that The Amen Corner “does not touch the race issue” and that “it would have been interesting to see how the wound in America’s flesh which is treated by a lot of white writers would have been treated by the other side.” The same reviewer however, makes note of the production’s significance as a play that “can find its way to Europe only by ‘import’ because it cannot be played by white actors.” These two statements form an interesting pair. Because the Vienna stage could not possibly have mounted this kind of production (according to the reviewer), the audience could not have been expected to understand the more subtle, more deeply seated issues of long-term race and class struggles, and certainly not from the perspective of an African-American author.
Though Europe certainly faced race issues of its own, those particular struggles manifested themselves quite differently and thus left very different signs. European nations in the 1950s were dealing mainly with the results of their African and Caribbean colonial projects; although some nations, like the United Kingdom, did see a large influx of black immigrants from the Caribbean, the relationship that these people had with European whites would have been very different from the relationship between Black America and White America. One can note the way that reviewer views race struggles as the “wound in America’s side” as an example of the way that many Europeans believed the civil rights issue to be a solely American issue. The quotation from that review regarding the supposed fact that the play could only have found itself in Europe by “import,” seemed to highlight one difference that I had not really considered. By the 1960s, black America had developed art, literature, and culture that had managed to make its way into the American mainstream. A play like The Amen Corner could play on Broadway and in Hollywood. In Europe on the other hand, black theatre was in a very different place. According to the Black Plays Archive in the United Kingdom, only a handful of plays by black authors were produced at all before 1965. In fact, the 1960s was the first decade that saw more than three plays by black playwrights produced. Though black people in Europe certainly had their own art and culture, this critic’s view shows that it was definitely not visible to the mainstream theatre community. Undoubtedly, black communities in Europe were not uniform, but the United Kingdom’s example serves as a good litmus test (seeing as its imperial projects had given the UK more contact with people of African heritage than many other European nations), yet even they were unable to escape misunderstanding The Amen Corner.
Though its major productions, both on tour and on Broadway, were not realized until the mid 1960s, The Amen Corner actually came much earlier in James Baldwin’s body of work. Written in 1954, it was not at all reflective of the bitterer, more revolutionary attitudes on race and politics that would have been typical of Baldwin’s work in 1965. The Amen Corner comes much closer in tone to his first major published work, Go Tell It On the Mountain, published in 1953. Both Go Tell It On the Mountain and The Amen Corner deal primarily with the particular form of Christianity that emerged in Harlem, drawing from Baldwin’s personal experience as the son of a Harlem preacher. In fact, The Amen Corner began as a sort of writing experiment for Baldwin as he attempted to re-create the success he’d had in writing Go Tell It On the Mountain and he “began to imitate [him]self”. While this may have been the reason for beginning the exercise, it is clear that in Baldwin’s mind, The Amen Corner took on a life of its own and became a worthwhile creative project. It was also clear that The Amen Corner needed to be a play. Baldwin’s commitment to developing a religious story in the dramatic form is evidenced by the fact that he developed the script for The Amen Corner as a member of The New Dramatists, a playwright collective devoted to the creation and refinement of new theatre.
By working with other theatre makers, Baldwin was able to draw directly from creative voices familiar with the theatrical structure and theatrical traditions. This kind of creative exchange would have led Baldwin to set The Amen Corner apart from Go Tell it On the Mountain, even though the two began as incredibly similar works. Through this influence, The Amen Corner is able to fully embrace the theatricality of religion in general, but also the particular theatrics of Black Christianity. Black churches in various denominations had elements of song and dance, but no denomination was so theatrical as the Pentecostals. Pentecostal rituals began the so-called ‘charismatic’ movement of Christianity in which worship included ecstatic proclamations of faith, speaking in tongues, and convulsions. In reflecting on his own time as a preacher in one of these Black Pentecostal churches, Baldwin writes:
“The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. “
According to one Vienna newspaper, the music was what Austrian audiences found most compelling in The Amen Corner, in particular because of the language barrier. This allowed for a particular emphasis on music and spectacle in the European production that may perhaps not have been present in American productions. According to critic Barbara K. Olson, The Amen Corner’s form is part of what enables it to be a more effective critique of Harlem’s particular brand of Black Christianity as an inadequate coping mechanism for a struggling, marginalized community than Go Tell It on the Mountain could be. The Amen Corner’s emotional momentum, and its enabling of the audience to actually partake in the over-the-top, impassioned Black Pentecostal rituals that Go Tell it on the Mountain can only attempt to describe provides a much closer insight into the religion’s allure. On a metatheatrical level as well, the sheer theatricality with which The Amen Corner presents Black Christianity creates for audiences an awareness of the rituals’ falseness. Just as they are aware that they are watching actors perform a Black Pentecostal service, they can also become aware that they are in fact watching characters who are acting just as much as the actors playing those characters. Richards’ production emphasizes this point in its scenic design. In terms of the church portion of the set, the congregation is seated facing away from the audience at an angle, thereby allowing the play’s audience to watch the congregation as they watch the sermons. While this was certainly a directorial choice, Richards’ vision for The Amen Corner, can in some ways be seen as Baldwin’s own; the author himself stated that this was the first time he’d seen the play as he’d envisioned it. Through the metatheatrical portrayal of the congregation, Baldwin does not criticize true religion as a solace for black people; he merely criticizes the abuse of false faith as a tool to hide from the realities of black life in the United States. Some critics argue that this layer of falsehood is not apparent within the text of The Amen Corner, and that the text can be interpreted as a defense of Black Christianity in using the large Pentecostal service scenes as an actual motivating force, moving the audience toward legitimate belief rather than discerning judgment. This argument, however, is not reflected in James Baldwin’s later work or in his own firsthand accounts of his personal religious ideology. In directly addressing the issue of his crisis of religion as a teenager in his The Fire Next Time, Baldwin discusses the epiphany that he had when his faith and the fictional safety blanket that it provided failed him:
“Therefore, to state it in another, more accurate way, I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid — afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances.”
In this rather bleak description of the typical fortunes of Harlem residents, Baldwin’s mention of “the same circumstances” is key. According to Baldwin, his moral upbringing, having been no different than any of the criminals he sees along the street, could still possibly result in his becoming one of said criminals. In this concrete way, Baldwin decides that the cycle of oppression that leads black people into delinquency is a fact that is only veiled by, and not at all prevented by religion. This idea of religion masking strife is also present in the Richards production’s set. The direct juxtaposition achieved by splitting the stage between the church and the home emphasizes the notion that the ecstasy of the church is a falsehood as the true downsides to Harlem life are revealed within the home. Yet, Baldwin’s assault on the oppressive power of Christianity does not end there, it turns a much more philosophical corner when the teenaged Baldwin reaches his own conclusions on religion’s relationship with race while supposedly undergoing a Christian conversion experience on the floor of a Harlem church:
“The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs — as who has not? — of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God — and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly — is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer”
The Fire Next Time serves to reveal the extent to which The Amen Corner’s themes relate with the struggle of the impoverished black residents of Harlem in particular, and just how tied with Black Christianity their lives were. While there is no explicitly white character within The Amen Corner, one might take Baldwin’s own suggestion from The Fire Next Time and view the Pentecostal God as the symbol of whiteness within the play. At the end of the play, the two principal characters, David and Margaret both sever their relationships with the Pentecostal Church. David’s severing is seen as a hopeful step for a younger generation in escaping Harlem through art (as Baldwin himself did). Margaret’s severing however, is the most obviously racialized. If one accepts that the Pentecostal Church’s view of God as being the placeholder for the influence of white society, Margaret’s final epiphany resolves the very issue that Baldwin took with the church during his ‘conversion experience’ as a teen. Margaret exclaims that “To love the Lord is to love all His children — all of them, everyone! — and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!” In this proclamation, Margaret decolonizes the form of Christianity that Baldwin himself practiced. In this vision of religion, Baldwin removes the ignorance, encouraging true believers to “love all His children,” and to “suffer with them and rejoice with them.” The implication here being that in a truly productive form of faith, black people are given access to the exact same love and salvation as white people. In fact, rather than simply repair Baldwin’s qualms with his Pentecostal teen years, Margaret’s statement here also serves as an attack on the morality of white Americans and their standing as true Christians. This call to “love all His children” may be being delivered by one black actress to other black actors, but when placed on stage, it becomes a command to the audience. It tasks the audience to examine the possible hypocrisy of their own faith in questioning their treatment of “all His children.” In this way, it turns a religion that previously functioned as a form of subjugation into a tool of revolutionary thought and empowerment. At the end of this play, Baldwin offers his audience two options out of the world of Harlem’s crime infested streets. The first is an escape from the community and its ideals, physically removing oneself from Harlem in order to avoid resigning oneself to delinquency and/or poverty. The second option is a subversion of the community’s own belief system by revealing its problematics and exposing its hypocrisy. Either way, Baldwin seems to indicate that those individuals who choose simply to blindly follow the Black Christian faith as prescribed in Harlem will remain just like the rest of the Church’s congregation, “despicable, sex-starved, ambitious, jealous, cruel” –the victims of having bought into the form of Christianity that had been passed down for centuries beginning with the colonization of Africa, and the indoctrination of slaves.
The great irony of The Amen Corner’s 1965 tour was that though the production was certainly an imported one, the text itself was created during James Baldwin’s time in Paris. A play born in Europe, but developed by the United States that received an eventual audience in Europe, The Amen Corner is in some ways unique. Baldwin took exile in Europe to avoid the very systems of oppression that were often depicted in his work, yet his European contemporaries (at least those outside of the Left Bank literary movement of mid-century Paris) were unable to fully understand the things he wrote on. The Amen Corner actually showed just why Baldwin moved to Paris in the first place, in order to escape the oppressive cycle of Harlem, Pentecostals and all.
“Black Plays Archive.” 2013, http://wwww.blackplaysarchive.org.uk.
Baldwin, James. 1968. The Amen Corner; a Play. New York: Dial Press.
———. 1963. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell Press.
Olson, Barbara K. 1997. “‘Come-to-Jesus Stuff’ in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Amen Corner.” African American Review 31 (2): 295–301. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042466.
“Play By Baldwin Opens in Vienna” MSS 366, The Amen Corner (1965) Production Files, Lloyd Richards Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
“European Premiere of ‘Amen Corner’ in Vienna” YCAL MSS 366, The Amen Corner (1965) Production Files, Lloyd Richards Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
1 “European Premiere of ‘Amen Corner’ in Vienna” YCAL MSS 366, The Amen Corner (1965) Production Files, Lloyd Richards Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library back to text
2 NB: The Black Plays Archive is a project in the UK that dedicates itself to collecting all of the possible data and documentation on professional theatrical productions that could be considered “Black British,” meaning any plays by playwrights of African or Caribbean heritage. back to text
4 Barbara K. Olson, “Come-to-Jesus Stuff” in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain and the Amen Corner,” African American Review 31, no. 2 (Summer, 1997), 295–301. 296 back to text
5 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell Press, 1963). 32 back to text
6 “Play By Baldwin Opens in Vienna” MSS 366, The Amen Corner (1965) Production Files, Lloyd Richards Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library back to text
7 Olson, 297 back to text
8 “Play By Baldwin Opens in Vienna” back to text
9 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 15–16 back to text
10 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 30 back to text
11 James Baldwin, The Amen Corner; a Play. (New York: Dial Press, 1968).105 back to text
12 Olson, 298 back to text