When James Baldwin wrote The Amen Corner, in the summer of 1953, he was only 29 years old and just beginning to emerge as a major voice in American letters. Much like the writers of the Lost Generation, Baldwin had spent a period in self-imposed Parisian exile. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his autobiographical first novel, was published to acclaim in 1952, but he was still unknown outside certain circles on either side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Baldwin was so hard up during this period that he had to borrow money from his friend Marlon Brando to sail back to America.
Though Baldwin’s early career yielded spectacular writing—his first volume of collected essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), and the bestselling 1962 novel Another Country—by the mid-1960s, he was more famous for participating in the marches on Washington, Selma, and Birmingham, meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and debating William F. Buckley on live TV. As Susan Sontag would later discover, when someone becomes a public intellectual in America, their writing can get lost in the shuffle.
It is especially tempting to regard The Amen Corner as beginner’s work. It is one of only two plays Baldwin ever wrote, and it shares many similarities with Go Tell It on the Mountain. But both the play and the novel explore a fundamental element of Baldwin’s ethos: his deep and lifelong investment in what Martin Luther King, Jr. calls the “beloved community.” The traditions of the Black Church, its rhythms, rhetoric, and ritual formed the basis for much of his work. As Baldwin explains in The Fire Next Time, he repeatedly uses the word love “not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
In other words, Mountain had been Baldwin’s first attempt at writing the great American novel, and The Amen Corner brings this ambitious vision to the stage. The play shows Baldwin bearing witness to the beloved community, putting Black lives at the center of his moral and political vision of America. These, Baldwin argues by implication, are the essential American stories, especially because of white America’s attempt to deny or erase their existence.
The play opens with a scene of testimony, with an entire church congregation hearing the ordinary details of Black life, and throughout the play Baldwin makes plain his desire to write about Black people, not the abstract “Negro problem,” as it was then euphemistically described. As he writes in the play’s 1965 preface, “No one yet knows, or is in the least prepared to speculate on, how high a bill we will yet have to pay for what we have done to Negro men and women, just as no white audiences know of [their] triumph, of the historical triumph of the Negro people in this country.”
This recognition would be delayed—if indeed it has ever come. Produced in Washington, D.C. in 1953 by the Howard University Players, The Amen Corner would not reach Broadway until 1965, at which point it was a play out of time. The 1959 premiere of A Raisin in the Sun, by Baldwin’s close friend Lorraine Hansberry, was buoyed by a parallel desire on the part of white America to reckon with the consequences of Black dreams deferred. More acutely, the mid-sixties marked the rise of a younger, more politically radical, and more dramaturgically experimental generation, with the 1964 off-Broadway productions of Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro depicting internalized racism in expressionistic and autobiographical terms and Amiri Baraka’s (then LeRoi Jones’s) The Dutchman casting interracial conflict as a Strindbergian war of the sexes.
Unlike Hansberry’s Raisin, which ingeniously adapts the realistic dramaturgy of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock to tell a story about home ownership in a discriminatory America, Baldwin’s Amen assumes an almost existential, Sartrean quality. The play’s opening stage directions call for the exterior of a Harlem tenement as well as the interior of a home and church, and Baldwin is keen to feature interior and exterior throughout the play, both the “Amen” world of the church and the “Corner” outside. The play’s two main characters come to embody this duality: Sister Margaret, the head of the congregation, and her son, the piano-playing, jazz-loving David. Through their experiences, Baldwin asks us to ponder the relationship of the Black individual to the powerful institutions comprising his or her society, and the internal obstacles that serve to inhibit true freedom.
Margaret spends almost the entire play inside the world of the Black Church, a realm of sisters and brothers, of preachers and flock. Set indoors, this public and performative landscape is capable of great aesthetic beauty and moral power. Baldwin designs the work as a play-with-music, and he underscores Margaret’s King Jamesian oratory with the sound of gospel piano and swelling organ, voices singing in harmony, and visceral call-and-response shouts of “amen” and “hallelujah.”
David’s world, meanwhile, is kept largely offstage, glimpsed only through telling props and loaded innuendos. Though it is secular where Margaret’s is religious, and associated with the obvious temptations of sex, drugs, and godless popular culture, this dangerous corner-world is no less beautiful, and Baldwin takes pains to make clear that the church contains just as many possible corruptions of God’s Word. In notes, he wrote of Margaret’s embrace (much like Ibsen’s Brand) of a stern and straitjacketing morality in place of God’s love. Speaking of the play decades later, Baldwin described his view of religion as a barrier to true social equality: “Faith is, for many people, a kind of hiding place in which you won’t be heard, in which you won’t have to think about yourself and you haven’t got to change, in which you haven’t got to be responsible for your neighbor.” And indeed, the play’s original title was “A Hiding Place.” He questioned any institution that prevented individuals from truthful and loving self-examination.
This is what Baldwin meant by bearing witness. It involved not just making white audiences aware of Black lives, but also inspecting those Black lives himself, with a critical yet loving eye. In Baldwin’s sense of the word, love is existential and political as well as spiritual, a love for oneself in the world as well as for the well-being of others. For Baldwin—the epitome of a writer with a divided consciousness, torn eternally between America and Paris, fiction and nonfiction, and many other binaries—the two worlds of the play are thus deeply connected, reflections of one another, or as Shakespeare might say, “undistinguishable.” In The Amen Corner, the theatre is also a church, and the church is also a theatre, one where all of us are asked to bear witness.