Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s leading black intellectuals, published “The Amen Corner” in 1954, and it was first produced over four days in May 1955 on the campus of Howard University in Washington. But it didn’t make it to Broadway for another decade, when it eked out a run lasting only a couple of months.
The script has mostly been gathering cobwebs ever since, with an occasional revival somewhere in the country and a short-lived musical version on Broadway in 1983. But its fortunes began to climb in 2013, courtesy of a well-received production starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste by London’s National Theatre. And now, in his nascent role as Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, Simon Godwin is producing a new, American version at Sidney Harman Hall, with Whitney White (Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down”) in the director’s chair.
As a result, “The Amen Corner” not only returns to its theatrical birth city; it also permits Washington audiences rare admission to an early and serious investigation of black life, in a canon that includes “A Raisin in the Sun” by Baldwin’s contemporary, Lorraine Hansberry.
“This play gives us a part of Baldwin that people really didn’t know,” says Soyica Colbert, chair of the department of performing arts at Georgetown University and an authority on black theater. “It also gives us humor and joy and music and focuses on intimate relationships within the black community.”
Godwin has his own ties to London’s National Theatre — he remains an associate director there — and this enduring connection helps to explain how “The Amen Corner” made its way into the repertory of a Washington company better known for Elizabethan tragedy and Molière comedy. It is also the case that some concerted mission rethinking is overdue for classical theaters of Shakespeare Theatre’s caliber. Striving for a more diverse audience, as well as a more inclusive definition of what constitutes a classic, the company is making an admirable advance this season toward broadening its vision.
Also, the dramatic arc of “The Amen Corner” owes as much to Shakespeare as it does to more contemporary references. Sister Margaret — being played in Harman Hall by Mia Ellis — is confronted with the consequences of decisions she made that tore her family apart; after her estranged husband returns and her congregation discovers the magnitude of her own faulty judgment, all of her values, even her faith, are thrown into question.
“It’s a black female ‘King Lear,’ ” says White, who sees in the play Baldwin’s efforts to deal starkly with struggles within the black community.
“What Baldwin was doing with this work is what I call ‘radically truthful,’ ” the director adds. That the playwright chose as his subject a cold-eyed appraisal of an independent black woman speaks to how ahead of its time “The Amen Corner” truly was. “He was dramatizing life quite bravely outside interracial political strife,” White says.
Baldwin himself wrote lyrics for some of the gospel music that streams through the play, and to perform it the company has recruited what the director describes as “some D.C. heavy hitters” in the cast of 17. Its leading members include Harriett D. Foy, E. Faye Butler, Nova Y. Payton, Jade Jones, Antonio Michael Woodard and Chiké Johnson.
Colbert believes that beyond the entertaining, melodic dimension there’s a redemptive core to “The Amen Corner” that audiences will find inspirational.
“For me,” she says, “Baldwin is an amazing figure because he helps us to think about how to hope, and to think, in times of trouble and despair.”
The Amen Corner, by James Baldwin. Directed by Whitney White. Feb. 11-March 15 at Sidney Harman Hall. shakespearetheatre.org.