The Amen Corner is a play by James Baldwin (1924-1987) that he wrote in 1954 and has been largely ignored. Baldwin was a prolific novelist, essayist and short story writer but he made only two forays into drama. The production of The Amen Corner by the Shaw Festival may be the first time the play is seen in Canada. A tip of the hat to the Shaw for producing the play.
The play is about a Black evangelical congregation in Harlem in the 1950’s. It deals with religious fervour, fanaticism, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy and love. It focuses on Pastor Margaret Alexander (Janelle Cooper), her family and the relationship with the congregation. The Pastor lives in an unprepossessing tenement with her apartment on the main floor and the church above. Set Designer Anahita Dehbonehie shows us both with stairs providing easy access from each unit to the other.
The congregation consists of ladies dressed in their Sunday outfits with small hats, nice dresses and petticoats. The men wear suits and all are dressed to go to church, to use an outdated phrase. The members of the congregation refer to each other as Brother and Sister. This is a deeply religious group.
We hear many hymns and of course Pastor Alexander’s sermons. She is deeply religious and strict in her demands for obedience and observance of the laws of God. No drinking is de rigueur but even driving a truck for a liquor company is a sin. You are helping people go to hell by delivering the substance of sin. Reading the funny papers is sinful because your mind is not on the Lord and Satan may cause you to fall.
Ida Jackson (Caitlyn McInnis) comes to church with a sick baby and asks the Pastor to pray and save her child. Margaret advises her to leave her husband (the way she did, it turns out). The child dies and Ida returns to Pastor Margaret asking why the Lord took her child. Margaret can offer little more than platitudes and tell her to pray.
But Pastor Margaret has a couple of secrets. She was married to Luke (Allan Louis), an alcoholic jazz musician and David (Andrew Broderick) her teenage son is beginning to stray away from the strictures of her preaching. He smokes and goes out with his friends. The congregation consists of poor Black people and they have the characteristics found in many of us: jealousy, envy, ambition. Pastor Margaret goes to Philadelphia to visit a sick colleague. That costs money. Unlike her parishioners, she has a Frigidaire refrigerator! Her husband Luke returns home, a sick and dying man. Did he abandon her or did she throw him out for the sake of keeping her position?
Sister Moore (Monica Parks) tells us that she is humble and brags that no man has laid a finger on her. When the time comes, she will tell Jesus that she lived and died a virgin.
Ardent faith and reality clash. Brother Boxer is as zealous as anyone, but he wants the job of delivering liquor. The Pastor objects. Her sick husband returns and we find out the truth about the breakup of her marriage. And how did she afford that fancy fridge as a pastor of a poor congregation?
Margaret is a human being like the rest of them. She wants the appearance of her self-righteousness to raise her above her congregation. It does not because it cannot do that anymore than the prayers, the hymns and the protestations of faith can raise the rest of the people above their common humanity or save Ida’s child.
The fine cast brings forth the religious and human conflicts of the play with sensitivity and superb acting. Anderson as Brother Boxer is both selfish and self-righteous but also human. Margaret Bridgwater as Margaret’s sister Odessa is rational but in a sea of fervent believers there is not much she can do. Allan Louis is a moving Luke who followed a career as a musician and no doubt a sinner but he never stopped loving his family and he did not abandon them. He was thrown out.
Parks as sister Moore is conniving and hypocritical the way many people are and manages to get ahead with their hypocrisy intact.
Director Kimberley Rampersad does superb work with a play that depends on hymns and has some creaky structural problems. Luke’s deaths scene is overdone and not every scene is convincing. Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to see a play by a great American writer who did not follow his ambition to become a playwright. Perhaps he realized it was simply not his forte.
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin continues until October 8, 2023, at the Festival Theatre as part of The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.