As with all of James Baldwin’s works, there’s more to The Amen Corner, opening Friday night at the Guthrie Theater, than is immediately evident. A first glance reveals the basic plot: Sister Margaret Alexander (played by Greta Oglesby) is the pastor of a Harlem congregation. She lives in the church basement with her son and sister, preaches honesty, and has dedicated her life to serving the Lord. But even a pastor has secrets, and Sister Margaret’s are about to catch up to her.
Penumbra Theatre Company founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy has had The Amen Corner in his back pocket for 30 years. Here, he tells us why he finally feels the time is right to let this spiritual, convicting play win the hearts of audiences just as it won his own so many years ago.
What’s it like performing on the Guthrie’s thrust stage instead of at Penumbra?
It’s an absolutely immense space. I’ve directed on the old thrust and it’s the same footprint, so I’m used to that, but rarely have I seen a stage be dominated by a set (and hopefully by a performance) the way it is with The Amen Corner. It’s a beautiful set.
You talk as though the set (designed by Vicki Smith) were another character in the play.
The play sets a number of polemics against each other: secular vs. non-secular, gay vs. straight, adult vs. emerging adult, church music vs. non-church music (and all the values that go along with that). The set reinforces it. There’s a bookcase in the middle of everything, and on each side of it are buildings—you could do the whole play in just a corner of the stage.
The Amen Corner is James Baldwin’s first play. How is it similar to or different from his novels?
The treatment of issues, social responsibility, and the yearning to be dealt with as a total person rather than just the parts of you people want to take are present in his novels as well as in this work. His voice as a champion of social justice is certainly there. As with anyone’s first play, the dramatic craft isn’t as sharp yet—there are gaps in the dramatic structure that need to be finessed—but that’s true in any play when a director begins to place a concept on it. It’s emotionally arresting and powerful, and I’m surprised at his dramatic acumen in juxtaposing all these forces. It really builds to something quite wonderful.
Did Baldwin write music into the play originally? Or did you and Sanford Moore choose to add it?
There was music, but it was primarily church music. One of the reasons I’ve had this play on my to-do list so long (30 years) is because I felt that only one side of the music was presented with balance, and that was the non-secular side. With the casting of Hannibal Lokumbe as the errant father (Luke), he presents the other side of that music: in a scene where Baldwin has David put a record on as a young boy, we have Lokumbe take over and play the trumpet instead of just letting the record play. He gives it a balance.
You’ve wanted to do this play for 30 years—were you waiting for the right cast to come along? Or some other “the stars align” moment?
I wasn’t really waiting. It’s more that I would reread it and teach it every year at the University (of Minnesota), I would be drawn to it, and I’d think, “I could do that in a different way—I could make a statement in a different way.” I felt that it was finally time to do that this year.
Baldwin wrote The Amen Corner in 1954 while he was dealing with his own homosexuality and how his church would react to it, so that theme is couched in the play as much as he felt he could bring it out then. This is a different time. Now we have an active community that speaks up. I’ve made that statement, that theme, more blatant. And it’s a better play because of it.
Did you have Greta Oglesby in mind for the role of Sister Margaret?
I did have Greta in mind, but there’s a number of really, really talented black women in our community who could have played the role and who also grew up in the same religions tradition as Greta did—who would bring a truth to the role that you can’t fake. Take Jevetta Steel, for instance. She’s the dramaturg for the show; the expert.
Tell me about Sister Margaret.
She’s been a single mother for 10 years, raising a son who’s coming into his manhood in all kinds of ways and plays the piano in church. He’s drawn to music away from the church, however, which happens a lot in the black community—drawn to beats you can dance to (or do other things to…). The same thing happened with his father, which is why Margaret ended up leaving him.
But she’s been lying about who left the marriage. After she had a child that was a stillborn, Margaret felt that it was God punishing her for living too happily in the secular world. So she left her husband, took her little boy, and became a pastor. She’s living below the church with her sister and son when all of a sudden the boy’s father, now a jazz trumpeter, shows up and throws everything into flux; reveals her lie.
There’s also an absolutely delicious Julius Caesar plot woven in here with the character Austene Van plays (Sister Moore). Sister Moore is trying to take over leadership of the church, and orchestrates the fall of Sister Margaret. Believe me when I say that this is as intriguing as any Shakespeare tragedy.
People still have a hard time wrapping their heads around women being pastors. Baldwin wrote this in the 1950s—wasn’t that a pretty radical idea?
It is iconoclastic to have a woman pastor, you’re right. But there are a lot of female leaders who often don’t get credit for it. Baldwin had that in mind. Actually, there was a woman who inspired him to write this—Sister Margaret is based on a real character. It’s up to us to tell the whole truth in our interpretation and depiction of the story.
What do you want audiences to take away from the play?
No sensate human being can engage these brilliant writers without being affected by them. They’re so thoughtful, so good, and so clear—they give you a lens through which to view your world, and their work polishes that lens and makes it crystal clear. The Amen Corner provides an opportunity for the black community to participate in something that’s more than just a mirror of their lives and behavior. Baldwin shows life for what it is and what it could be. The script isn’t standing apart and carping. It’s full of intellectually exciting and engaging topics, but has common, everyday people talking about them. These are common folk splitting verbs.
How does The Amen Corner fit into Penumbra’s mission to “create professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, relevant, and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience”
What we do now is built on 35 years of working toward the crystallization of esthetic and socially responsible art. When we started, you weren’t supposed to make art with an agenda. Everyone thought artists were “supposed to be neutral.” But what we do—race work, social work—opens up a dialogue with our community. And so does this production. A play should never be (and never is) the end. A play is just the beginning.
The Amen Corner
May 11–June 17
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls., 612-377-2224