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Before James Baldwin rose to fame as a novelist, essayist and public intellectual, he brought one of his few plays to Howard University, where it was first produced in 1955.
“The Amen Corner” is the story of a black woman pastor of a storefront Harlem church whose religious certainty seeds trouble in the congregation and with her own son. The play mines Baldwin’s early life, which was dominated by a strict stepfather pastor and marked by his own teenage years in the pulpit.
Though critically acclaimed, the play has spent little time on professional stages. It made it to Broadway twice, in 1965 and then as a musical in 1983, and got it’s next big break in 2013, at London’s National Theatre.
Now the District’s Shakespeare Theatre Company has taken on “The Amen Corner,” bringing the play back to its D.C. roots with an ambitious production that aims to show a side of Baldwin even many fans have never seen.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The world knows James Baldwin as one of the 20th century's great novelists, essayist and public intellectuals, a New Yorker who transplanted himself to Paris and chronicled the black experience in America as no one had before. But Baldwin was also a playwright, and what many considered the stronger of his two plays was first produced right here in the District.
KOJO NNAMDI"The Amen Corner" had its world premiere in 1955 at Howard University. For much of the past 65 years, it has languished, but Washington Shakespeare Theater Company recently decided that "The Amen Corner" deserves a chance to impress a new generation and has put a gospel-infused version of it on stage through March 15th. Joining us to discuss this lesser-known, but compelling work of James Baldwin is Mia Ellis. She stars in "The Amen Corner" at the Shakespeare Theater. Thank you so much for joining us.
MIA ELLISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Soyica Colbert is a professor of African-American studies and performing arts at Georgetown University. Thank you for joining us.
SOYICA COLBERTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, give us a call. Have you seen "The Amen Corner"? What do you think? 800-433-8850. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Mia, you play the lead character in "The Amen Corner." Tell us about Sister Margaret.
ELLISSister Margaret is someone who I have, in a way, fallen in love with. Which, you know, actors, we hope to do that with all our characters...
NNAMDIYou inhabit the person.
ELLISYes. Yeah, because you want to advocate for them in any way possible, because their journey is valid, and teaches you so many things along the way. Margaret is at a crossroads in her life. Someone from her past comes back and forces her to reckon with choices that she made ten years ago, which causes her to take a deep, hard look at where she is now and where she's come from.
ELLISAnd, you know, she's the pastor of this very small church in Harlem. And she has this congregation who she's very close to. Everyone sort of knows everything about everyone, which makes it difficult for her to reckon with some of the choices that she's made. And she's a mother, which is a great deal of what makes her journey so interesting, is that she's not only fighting for herself in the choices that she's made. She's fighting for the life of her son, who is an 18-year-old, wonderful young man who is about to embark on a new world. And her fears about that are part of the reason why she goes through the journey that she goes through during this play.
NNAMDIIn the opening of the play, you give a sermon at this Pentecostal church that is a stirring sermon that, as I said, even caused me to want to go out and do some things. (laugh) But it's clear that, not only have you studied this, but tell us a little bit about yourself. Is there anything in your background that helps you become Sister Margaret on stage?
ELLISWell, I would say, you know, I was raised going to church. So, I'm a Christian. I was Presbyterian, specifically. My dad was Presbyterian. My mom was Baptist, but that definitely has given me so many ways to sort of be able to connect with Margaret, having grown up going to church, being in the church, and still now, as an adult, religion being a part of my life.
ELLISI would also say that my mom is someone who I consider to be a strong woman. She's a strong black woman. You know, I grew up in Mississippi, and she very much was a mom who wanted to make sure that she made the right choices so that we could have, my siblings and I, have good lives. And I can see so much of her in Margaret in the way that she tries to keep her son David safe and wants him to make the right decisions so that his life isn't cut short.
ELLISAnd I think that is something that so many moms can relate to in a way that they want their kids to have full lives and don't want anything to happen to them. But, at that same time, the fear gets in the way of your children being able to live, sometimes, if it's too much of you trying to protect them. And that's part of her struggle. That's part of Margaret's struggle, and you watch her having to deal with that.
ELLISAnd there's a very pivotal moment in the play, a scene that Margaret has with her son where you get to see, finally, David vocalizing what it's been like to be raised by someone who's been so strong and so protective of him. And you get to see the fallout from that.
NNAMDIOne of the other characters in the play, Sister Moore, is an elder of the church, played by the incomparable E. Faye Butler, who's done a lot of work in this region. Odessa, Margaret's older sister, David, Margaret's son, Sister Boxer, elder of the church, Brother Boxer, elder of the church. And then, of course, there's Lou. Tell us about the interaction among the actors on that play. Tell us about the chemistry.
ELLISOh, my gosh. This group of actors -- my credit goes out to Whitney White, specifically, the director of the show who, you know, she spearheaded, sort of pulling together, curating the 17 actors in this room. And that process, for all of us, has been amazing. And Soyica has been there with us as the dramaturge. We have all been there for each other, and all sharing our own personal experiences in the room with religion and having strong black moms, which has sort of fed into how we've been able to truly ground ourselves in this play and make these people, these characters feel real.
ELLISAnd I don't think that would've come if we hadn't been connected in the room, and were not able to make each other laugh in thinking about the moments that these characters have that sort of echo in our own lives, and when we were little and growing up in the church. And I think the intergenerational relationship helps, too, because you get to see there are -- you know, I will say I'm in my 30s, but there are people in the play who are older, you know, 20 years older than me. And they have a different experience with religion in life and have seen different times.
ELLISBut being able to share those things, I think, just made it so easy for us to come together, because, you know, I know this play has its funny moments, but it's not a comedy. So... (laugh)
NNAMDIBy no means. (laugh)
ELLIS...we are able -- yes, we are able to break each other's hearts, because we were so supportive and there for each other and able to bring joy to each other in the rehearsal room.
NNAMDISoyica Colbert, James Baldwin is considered one of the 20th century's great writers and thinkers. "Go Tell it on the Mountain" and "If Beale Street Could Talk" are classic American novels. His essays and "Notes of a Native Son," or one of my favorites, "The Fire Next Time" captured the black experience in this country at the dawn of the civil rights movement. But far fewer people are aware that he was also a playwright. Why is that?
COLBERTWell, I think that, as you mentioned in your opening, part of the complexity is a matter of timing. And so, when Baldwin wrote "The Amen Corner" in 1954, he was not a household name. We didn't know him has...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Heck, he was 24 years old. (laugh)
COLBERTYeah, he was just beginning his career as a writer. And, at that time, the regional theater scene was just beginning in the U.S. And so the only place you could really become a major playwright was in New York City. And, of course, the U.S. was still segregated at that time, so it was hard for a black artist to break through.
COLBERTAnd so Baldwin's play was originally produced here at Howard University, but it wasn't until a decade later that it was produced in New York. And by the time it was produced in the '60s, the themes of the interracial drama, this play about a very specific aspect of black life, were not as resonate with what the conversation was during the civil rights movement, the heyday of the civil rights movement.
COLBERTAnd so I think that it's exciting to have the play being produced now, because the epic scale of the play, the size of the play really requires a big theater, a major investment. And so that was the other challenge at the time. Not only was Baldwin a black playwright, little-known, but also the size of the play is so epic in scale, with the number of characters and the height of the drama. And so it really took a while for the U.S. theater scene to catch up with him.
NNAMDIFor those who don't know, what is an "Amen Corner"?
COLBERTSo, an "Amen Corner" is a group of people in the church who are responding to the preacher, who are echoing the preacher on. Apparently, there was a great group of an "Amen Corner" in the theater on Saturday from Howard University. (laugh)
COLBERTBut, yes, it’s a group of people. Sometimes it might be the deacon, sometimes it might be the more fervent members of the church where they're responding in a call-response way to the preacher.
NNAMDIBaldwin didn't write "The Amen Corner" as a musical, yet this production is filled with music. And the ensemble is essentially a choir that sings throughout the production. As an advisor to the production, tell us about how music underscores the drama.
COLBERTSo, in the play, Baldwin does have the lyrics of songs, but you're right, he does not have the score, and so one of the challenges of producing the play was bringing to life these musical references. And so Shakespeare did a great job of hiring a really brilliant musical director, Victor Simon. And he was able to take the more familiar songs and figure out what would have been appropriate interpretation, you now, for the time period. And then the songs that were lesser-known, doing research to figure out what would be a good way of arranging them, so that they resonated with its period of the piece.
NNAMDIWell, let's hear one gospel classic from "The Amen" production. This is "I'm Not Tired Yet."
NNAMDI"I'm Not Tired Yet" from the Shakespeare Theater's production of "The Amen Corner." Soyica, tell us a little bit about Baldwin's religious upbringing. What were his own experiences like?
COLBERTSo, Baldwin was brought up in a Pentecostal church. His father was a preacher, and Baldwin was also a boy preacher, began preaching as a teenager in his church. And one of the things he talks about in "The Fire Next Time" and in "Notes of a Native Son" is the ways that he was really trying to find himself. And so he said you could either go out on the corner or you could be a preacher, but you had to figure out how to find your hustle.
COLBERTAnd so one of the things however that Baldwin learned from being in the church is some of his ethical commitments that continue to inform his work, until he dies. And so although he does not continue to be a part of organized religion after his youth, he moves away from the church proper, you can see how the lessons he learned through Christianity, about love, the beloved community, about coming together across difference, really continued to inform his writing throughout his life.
NNAMDIHow did "The Amen Corner" come to be produced first at Howard University, and what do we know about that production?
COLBERTSo, it was really sort of a happenstance. The director of theater at Howard, Owen Dobson, was given the play, and was asked to produce it. And, once again, you know, at that time the black artistic community was much smaller and was very interconnected. And so, Baldwin, he read the play, the director read the play, asked Baldwin to come to Washington, D.C. to have it produced. Baldwin said, well, I would love to come, but I don't have any car fare. I don't have any money to get to D.C.
COLBERTAnd so they paid for him to come and produce the play. It had really rave reviews. It was reviewed in the Washington Post at the time. And then, interestingly, according to Dobson, Baldwin then stayed and lived with him for a matter of weeks after the production to continue to work on the play. And although he was taken by Baldwin's charisma, at some point, he was eaten out of house and home, (laugh) and so he had to encourage him to move on to his next artistic piece. And so, then, you know, it wasn't a decade until it was produced in New York.
NNAMDIThere's a note in the program from "The Amen Corner's" Howard University production that compares the play to Baldwin's novel, "Go Tell it on the Mountain." Would you read that note for us, and tell us what it says to you about what Baldwin is hoping to inspire with that novel and this play?
COLBERTYes. It says, "It is a fairly deliberate attempt to break out of what I always think of as the cage of negro writing. I wanted my people to be people first, negroes incidentally. That is, I hoped by refusing to take a special embattled tone to involve the readers in their lives. And this is to such an extent that he would know more about himself, and therefore more about negroes than he had known before."
COLBERTAnd so one of the things that I think Baldwin is getting at in the quote is really trying to draw attention to the stories, the dramatic and heroic qualifies of quotidian black life of the everyday, the way that you can have a tragic figure that is a black single mother and how the epic scale of drama can happen in a storefront church. And so what does it mean to really think about black cultural production, black community, specific black religious traditions at the site for an epic drama, and how black lives are robust and rich and important enough to think about in that scale.
NNAMDIIndeed, Margaret is a character of Shakespearean proportion. She's been compared to Julius Caesar. I myself thought a little bit about King Lear, (laugh) who are obviously both male. So, it's clear that Baldwin did this deliberately, to put a female in that position. Care to comment about that, Mia?
ELLISYes. And, you know, I'm incredibly grateful that he made that choice. And I think black women in this world are incredible beyond measure. And, you know, I think for Margaret, for this role to be a woman says so much about James Baldwin's respect for black women. And I think it allows us to highlight that, now, that women -- you know, Margaret has this line where she says, “the Lord gave me strength to be mother and daddy both.” And she does hold that power. And, for me, that's incredible.
ELLISKnowing my mother -- my parents are divorced, but who really -- she bore the weight of raising myself and my sister and my brother. And I think it's important to uplift black women in their struggles, because they do go through so much. But they still manage to be these incredibly intelligent, beautiful women who have so much heart, despite having to go through so much pain.
ELLISAnd I think that is what, in a way, makes this journey so epic, is that, Margaret, she is someone who's trying to survive and do the best that she can with what she has and make a way for herself. And she does go through this sort of Shakespearean arc, but in a way, you know, I feel that James Baldwin stands on his own. I think you can say that it's Shakespearean, but he allows...
NNAMDIIt's more Baldwinean. (laugh)
ELLISYes. Oh, that's a beautiful way to put it. I think so. You know, Margaret goes through an harrowing journey, and comes out on the other side having seen so much, and having a mirror put up to her where she has to face a lot of great things and a lot of not-so-great things. And I think that's what life is, you know, where there's good and the bad and how we come out on the other side. And forgiveness is a huge part of this, as well.
NNAMDIYou were invited to audition for the part of Sister Margaret by Director Whitney White via video, but she also told you to redo that video. What did she want from you in the second audition?
ELLISWell, that was, I guess I would technically call, the second version was the callback, in a sense of, yes, we've seen the first round. We see what you can do, but how can we make this more specific and more of what I'm thinking about what I'd like to have for the show? And so I think, for that, Whitney -- she just wanted me to really dig deeper, which is what this rehearsal process has been, is really getting down into the heart of Margaret. Which, you know, before you've had a chance to rehearse something, when you audition, you sort of take a preliminary look at everything. And you record it and send it off and hope for the best.
ELLISAnd Whitney saw enough that she knew that wanted to continue the conversation. And so, with that, we talked more about Margaret and where we thought she was coming from and the things about her life, which still just helped me internalize more of what I thought Margaret could be. And I taped it again and sent it off and got the offer for the role.
NNAMDIWow. Soyica, you're the author of a forthcoming book on one of Baldwin's contemporaries, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote "A Raisin in the Sun" just a few years after "The Amen Corner." Why did that play grab the country in a way that "The Amen Corner" did not?
COLBERTSo, I think that by 1959, America was ready for black drama on Broadway. And because Hansberry's play, in some ways, is more contained in terms of the scale of the play, and so it's very similar to other plays of the era by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, in terms of it being about a family and domestic context, and it being contained in that way.
COLBERTBut, of course, as we know, Hansberry's play is also about bigger questions about identity, equality, transnational blackness. And so Hansberry was able to get at these larger questions and themes in a more familiar medium, I think, or a more familiar genre. Whereas, as we've already discussed, Baldwin's play, you know, is echoing Renaissance drama. It has a Greek chorus in it. It has, you know, elements of domestic drama. And so it's more complicated in terms of the form, I think, than Hansberry's play.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, when Baldwin was doing this at Howard, Lorraine Hansberry's uncle, Leo Hansberry, was also heading up what would now be known as the African Studies Department at Howard. So, there had to be interaction there. Mia, James Baldwin wrote only two plays, but you've appeared in both. Tell us about "Blues for Mister Charlie." Who did you play, and was that a very different experience for you?
ELLISSo, "Blues for Mister Charlie," I played Juanita. And the experience was different, because "Blues for Mister Charlie" basically deals with the death of a young black man in a town in Mississippi, and sort of the people around him, white and black, on separate sides of whether his death was right or wrong. And Juanita is the character who is murdered, his love interest.
ELLISSo, in a way, she also goes on a harrowing journey of discovering what her love was for this young man who was killed, and her relationship to the community around her. And, Juanita, who is a little bit younger and not quite as experienced as Margaret in the world and doesn't have a child, but who is dealing with this sort of pain and tug-of-war of being in the South and being educated, but also having a love for someone who was very, in a way, pushing against the way things were in a separation that existed during that time, because of the color of your skin.
NNAMDIJames Baldwin's "The Amen Corner" is at the Shakespeare Theater Company through March 15th. Here's another piece of gospel from the production.
NNAMDIYou can see a slideshow of scenes from "The Amen Corner" at kojoshow.org. Mia Ellis, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Soyica Colbert, thank you for joining us.
COLBERTThank you so much.
NNAMDIThis segment about "The Amen Corner" was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about the struggle for equality for black workers was produced by Richard Cunningham. Tomorrow evening is the next Kojo in Your Community. It's about changing immigration policies and their impact on local students and families. And there are still some tickets left. Join as at the Columbia Heights educational campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org. And join us tomorrow, at noon. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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