James Baldwin’s ‘The Amen Corner’ on stage at the Shaw Festival

By Neil Armstrong 

One year after writing his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin wrote his first play, The Amen Corner, in 1954.

The Amen Corner

The play, a searing drama of love and hate that plays out in an evangelical church in Harlem, is being directed by Kimberley Rampersad, who is also the associate artistic director of the Shaw Festival, and is part of the programming this season. 

David, a teenage musical prodigy has to choose between his mother, the pastor and choir leader of the church, Margaret Alexander, and his washed-up father, Luke, with whom he shares a passion for jazz. Meanwhile his mother is finding that a community dedicated to Christian love and support is capable of terrible bitterness and cruelty. This special production features rousing songs performed by a gospel choir.

Rampersad says the Shaw Festival was always interested in having great representation of a cross section of brilliant writers and playwrights — and Baldwin, the celebrated gay African-American novelist, essayist and playwright — was excellent and like the festival’s namesake Bernard Shaw a provocateur, an orator, activist and polymath who was brilliant at many things.

“They have some very important things in common along with their excellence, their advocacy for their communities, the way they are able to speak with fire and with clarity, and the way that they led movements. So those things coupled with a play that is rarely programmed make it a unique experience for not only the festival, but especially for audiences to see something that they might not find many other places,” she says, noting these as the reason she and artistic director Tim Carroll programmed The Amen Corner.

Rampersad says her mother is a Christian and she grew up in the church so she was able to pull on her own experience and see some parallels and some divergences with the play.

First performed on a professional stage in 1965, The Amen Corner addresses themes of the role of the church in the African-American family, the complex relationship between religion and earthly love, and the effect of a poverty born of racial prejudice on the African-American community.

Kimberley Rampersad

Those were exciting things for the production team comprising set designer Anahita Dehbonehie, costumes designer A.W. Nadine Grant, lighting designer Mikael Kangas, gospel choir music director Jeremiah Sparks, and music supervisior Paul Sportelli. It was also significant to them that they were working with an all-Black cast. Sparks, a pastor from Cherrybrook, Preston, Nova Scotia, grew up in the church where he served as the organist at sixteen and was a choir director for over thirty years. The cast includes Janelle Cooper as Margaret Alexander, Andrew Broderick as David, and Allan Louis as Luke.

“For him to be able to bring all of that natural and authentic love for God and the music into our production is remarkable,” says Rampersad.

Rampersad says it was important to understand the variations of the hymns that were selected to ensure that they were doing something similar to what they were doing in Harlem in the Pentecostal church of the 1950s, and really lifting the story.

What they all found is that: “The Black Church is more than a church in the community. It is a community space, it is a gathering space, it’s a space where we can show up even more as ourselves without the gaze of what society would like to put on us, where it would like to relegate us that we are able to show up for one another and for ourselves, and to be able to speak about that freedom that we felt within the church, especially in this community because this is a poor community that Baldwin is talking about and is in the midst of, and so what is it to be able to throw off those positions of servitude or lower positions that we might find ourselves in working in society and to show up as the creature that God has created us to be, so those were really important things that we were able to talk about in the play.”

Rampersad says The Amen Corner is important to the present time because the crux of Baldwin’s message, God is love, is so needed in everything.

“We talk about that in our play and our tragic hero at the end, Margaret, she comes to it at the very end in her final soliloquy where she is able to say that the true way to God is to love everyone all the time with your whole heart in the highs and the lows and that’s what it means to be a true Christian and to love God. And I think that that is just important, we couldn’t speak it enough.”

Rampersad says she thinks their responsibility as the artists who are creating the play is to make an excellent piece of theatre that will connect the art to the audience.

“If they haven’t experienced what the love in the Black community is for one another, I would love them to experience that. If they are Black, I would love for them to feel that they are well represented in this play, and that this play is more than sometimes what we might see, like Black trauma on stage, that it is something as simple as it’s family, and its community. And it’s how we grow up, how we take care of one another, how we just exist in the world going to our job and making lunches, that we have all of these stories too.

“And that if people think that a Black story isn’t for them, the story and the feelings are universal so it might be a window into a community that they may not be a part of or close to but now they are invited in and can see how alike we are.”

Rampersad and the creative team appreciate the feedback from the audience they received at a preview of the play.

She says the Shaw Festival now has a history of making sure that they are doing more plays by Black playwrights and that started with the previous artistic director Jackie Maxwell and continues with Carroll, and Philip Akin has directed many of those plays “and they have now a good tradition, something that’s entrenched so it’s nice to see it make its way to the main stage.”

Rampersad sits on the committee of the Black Shoulders Award, created by Akin when he retired from Obsidian Theatre Company, to present $5,000 to five theatre artists every year so that they can pursue some sort of growth or development in their craft.

“Philip has been instrumental here at the Shaw in creating excellent Black theatre,” says Rampersad.

She underscored that The Amen Corner is life affirming and beautiful so everyone should come out to see it.