The end of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner,” presented by The Williams Project and LANGSTON through Nov. 20, left me stunned. Let me assure you, I won’t spoil the ending here. Instead, I want to talk about what led up to an ending that has been replaying in my head from the moment I left the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, and an ending that left me wishing that Baldwin’s 1954 play was produced much more often.
To set the stage, “The Amen Corner” takes place in a Harlem church where Margaret serves as the church’s pastor with her son, David, as the church’s pianist. Margaret is a fiery preacher, whose fervor in her home life matches the dynamic sermons she delivers from the pulpit. Early in the play, Margaret’s estranged husband, Luke, makes a surprise reappearance in her life, arriving unannounced at her apartment below the church. After he collapses in her kitchen due to an illness, the truth of their separation comes out, leading to the erosion of church elders’ faith in Margaret as their pastor.
The elders pick away at every tiny thing in Margaret’s life. If she can lie about why she and her husband are separated, what else is she lying about? Is she lying about the allocation of church funds? How can they trust a pastor who seemingly turned her back on her own family? And what right does she have to tell them how to live their lives if she’s hiding secrets and sins of her own?
It’s an unfair, borderline insulting line of questioning. Throughout “The Amen Corner,” Baldwin, whose stepfather was a Baptist preacher and who himself was a preacher for a few years in his youth, stages a conversation around religion and who gets offered grace, forgiveness and understanding. I go back and forth on whether I think some of the pacing choices throughout the show are intentional from director Reggie D. White, enlightening the deeper meanings of Baldwin’s work, or simply the cast needing to settle into the play more.
For instance, the speed at which lines are delivered early on can be a bit abrasive. It can feel almost like an excited child who is so desperate to tell you a story that they’re barely slowing down enough to take a real, full breath. Characters talk at each other rather than to each other, like no one is listening long enough to form their next opinion. Again, that could be a symptom of the cast needing to relax into a play, as all casts do during a run.
But then Luke, Margaret’s musician husband, comes in, and for the first time in the play everything just stops. All of a sudden, the speed feels intentional, a choice from White that was crafted as a contrast to the weight and stillness that Luke brings to the stage. Credit to Adrian Roberts, whose Luke becomes the one person onstage who seems to actually be concerned with making sure the person he’s speaking to hears and processes the words he’s saying. It’s a trend that continues, with conversations that involve Luke, the one nonmember of the church, feeling more attentive and caring than conversations that happen between the church elders.
So I want to see this as intentional, because it works as a powerful metaphor with Margaret at the center. Margaret, for much of the play, is like the church elders, spitting fast-paced sentences, claiming her actions are in service of the Lord, but rarely stopping to listen before laying down a judgment. But as she starts to fall victim to that same lack of empathy, and see how that tact has alienated her son, we see Margaret, through a wonderful performance from Maiya Reaves, start to soften, slow and listen as everything she used to hold dear starts to slip away.
But that high-speed clip at which much of the play is performed comes back to bite it, with an ending that seems over in a blink. Baldwin’s play is crafted in a way where only we as the audience understand the depth of what Margaret has lost due to the events of the play, and only we can know her growth. But this pacing, intentional or not, plows by those final moments, resulting in a startling final blackout. “The Amen Corner” is rarely produced, and it’s hard to say the next time we’ll see it onstage. So I keep replaying that final scene in my head, trying to slow it down, trying to enjoy the stark imagery and contrast Baldwin and White leave us with. Trying, you could say, to listen.