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James Baldwin (1924—1987) American novelist and black civil rights activist

Go Tell It on the Mountain


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Amen Corner

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James Baldwin's The Amen Corner did not reach Broadway until 1965, twelve years after its completion. A morality play echoing his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), The Amen Corner has a laborious history. Although the play failed to generate professional interest, writer Owen Dodson directed a student production at Howard University in 1955. It opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre a decade later on 15 April 1965 under Lloyd Richards's direction.

The drama critiques the church's role in African Americans’ lives. Center stage are Sister Margaret, the pastor of a Pentecostal church; Luke, her estranged husband; David, their son; Odessa, Margaret's sister; and church members. Described by the author as a “tyrannical matriarch,” Margaret applies a harsh, Calvinistic doctrine to her family and parishioners. However, she fails to heed her opening sermon, “Set thine house in order.” Instead, she journeys to Philadelphia to resuscitate a “wicked” church, ignoring threats at home: the “Elders” of her congregation raise questions about her financial and domestic matters; the jazz-playing Luke returns to make amends before dying; and David questions the righteous path that his mother imposes. We also learn that Margaret left Luke after the death of their baby, which Margaret took as a sign from God concerning her marriage to an incontrovertible “sinner.” Margaret appears in limbo when Luke dies, David flees, and the church deposes her. However, she finds redemption after acknowledging her rigid Christianity: “It ain’t all in the singing and the shouting. It ain’t all in the reading of the Bible.”

The Amen Corner reflects many of Baldwin's own religious experiences; thus, he deftly incorporates gospel music and sermons and preaching. Like dramas such as T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Baldwin's play foregrounds the powerful role of religion and problematizes “good” and “evil.” One of the few African American dramas about the church, The Amen Corner is still widely performed.

Therman B. O’Daniel, ed., James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, 1977.C. W. E. Bigsby, The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, 1980.

Keith Clark

Subjects: Literature

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