When You Are in a Corner, Amen: Black Oedipus is called Sister Margaret

A guest post by Domenico Giuseppe Muscianisi

Being in a corner can be scary: There’s no escape, it’s a trap. Professional boxers know it very well. Being in a corner is also a metaphor for exclusion and marginalization. The black church James Baldwin focuses on in The Amen Corner knows this experience very well.
The Amen Corner by Baldwin (1954) is a play, which deals with the real face of this metaphor and embarks on hard paths of human lives, feelings, and behaviors. The 2020 production of The Shakespeare Theatre Company directed by Whitney White coincides with the events of Amen, Baldwin! A Living Celebration, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Baldwin’s celebrations spread broadly in DC, thanks to the collaboration and participation of the cultural hub of Busboys and Poets, with their books and merchandise connected to Baldwin; Howard University, with students’ performances and lectures; panel discussions at The National Museum of African American History and Culture; and finally Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (hence CHS). The CHS is separately exhibiting Black Classicists: A Mural Mosaic, which in a perfect ring composition connects the study of the Mediterranean world of the Greeks and the Romans to the African American history. Thus, the CHS hosted a free panel with actress E. Faye Butler from The Amen Corner and Howard University Professors Nefertiti Burton and Caroline Stark (watch the recording).

There is something very Greek in Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, from various viewpoints. A playwright ponders over life, over actions and their contradictions with words, over religion and the mysterious paths of God. Through this play the audience is swayed to empathize with the characters, especially the main character, and the consequences of her decisions for her church community, her son, herself: for the sake, of course… but of whom?
Everybody – characters and audience – is in this corner. In fact, the scenery overwhelmingly presents the image of a corner: The acting space is amazingly designed with different triangles, which intersect and inscribe to each other. The triangles create the different spaces of the plot, such as the church, the street, the house of Sister Margaret and its rooms. There is no need for scene changes: The scenery describes and fixes the image and the feeling of a corner all the time contributing to a strong pathos. Even relationships between the characters can be defined on the basis of which triangle they take up in dialogues and speeches. Space use and design by Daniel Soule is one of the best, meaningful elements of the entire show.

Sister Margaret Alexander (Mia Ellis) is a black single mother and pastor, with an 18-year-old son and a church community in Harlem, New York. She is inspired, and serene; her speeches reassure, encourage and support the worshippers. She is friendly and hosts the elders of the community regularly at her home where she accepts and gives them advice.

One day after the worship at home her son David (A. Michael Woodard) is nervous; often looking outside the window, he tries to discourage her mother from taking him to Philadelphia. He talks about the music classes and new ways of playing, different from traditional church music. In fact, he knows something that his mother cannot control.
Even if you run away to attempt to change your destiny, tragic irony brings yourself to face it. This is a lesson from Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Sister Margaret is Oedipus. She escaped from a dark past as the wife of a drunk jazz musician. She rebuilt her life with her son and rewrote her past, polishing it, to follow her vocation to be a pastor and preacher.
Her past literally knocks at her door: Her husband Luke (Chiké Johnston) enters the house and within a scene that mixed comic and tragic features he reveals the truth. Ten years before, Margaret abandoned the man and told her son and all her community the opposite. Luke, like a jazz Teiresias, opens the eyes of Oedipus/Margaret, but, like Oedipus, Margaret tries to escape her destiny taking the bus to Philadelphia and still continues to consider her actions in the right.

While Sister Margaret is absent, the community falls in a corner: forgive or remove Sister Margaret? The small, devout community is pretty colorful and energetic. They discuss and confront: They represent the comic side of the play, but at the same time they are severe judges. There is the faithful Odessa (Harriett D. Fox), who wholeheartedly tries to protect her younger (genetic) sister Margaret from gossip and rumors, but she is also rigid and tough towards Margaret, when David decides to make his own way through. The spicy couple of Mr. and Mrs. Boxer (Phil McGlaston and Deidra LaWan Starnes respectively) are key players of many of the fun episodes and dialogue in the whole play, but Brother Boxer does not spare Sister Margaret his rancor and disappointment, for feeling cheated. Among the others, there is the whole-comic character of Sister Moore (E. Faye Butler), “pure and set apart from the lusts of the flesh” and “humble,” gifted with “health and strength,” who – however – inflexibly proposes the destitution of Sister Margaret and takes her place as pastor of the corner church in Harlem. Butler deserves praise for her comic rhythm and time, stage presence and mime during the entire performance.

The troubles and doubts of the community are perfectly expressed by the choir of devotees. Very talented singers in very touching gospel songs, composed by Victor Simonson for this production of Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, brought the audience on one hand to the reasons of Margaret, on the other hand to the disillusions of the community and the family. The same confusion takes over the tragic chorus of the elders of Thebes in Sophocles’ play: sometimes they give good pieces of advice, sometimes they refuse to talk after  casting so many doubts, sometimes they express their release and their horror. Considerations and thought in 5th-century BCE Athens as well in present-day Washington, DC are left to the emotions and beauty of music and songs.

The entirety of Baldwin’s play shows a cross between tragedy and comedy, as it reproduces Sister Margaret’s contradictions. She looks secure of choices until she accepts facing her dying husband and recognizes her mistakes and realizes what she has lost. But before there is a very important dialogue and meeting for Margaret. At the beginning of Act 3 of the original play (in the middle of Act 2 in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production), Mrs. Ida Johnston (Jasmine M. Rush) comes to the church crying for her dead baby. At the very beginning, Ida Jackson brought her sick baby to the church for blessing and solace, but now the Lord has taken the baby from his mother. Ida says “The Lord ain’t got no right to make a baby suffer so” and Margaret admonishes her that “We can’t penetrate the mysteries of the Lord’s will.”
Ida Jackson’s scene is one of the most paradigmatic scenes of The Amen Corner. Sister Margaret is ready to warn and admonish her church’s devotees, but she is unfit to consider her attempt at ‘substituting’ for God by designing the destinies of her husband and her son, without their approvals or opinions.

Sophocles’ Oedipus needs to bottom out, after discovering that he is the killer of his own father and the husband of his own mother, cursing his sons and brothers to kill each other, blinding himself with the pins of his wife and mother’s dress, becoming a wanderer and exile.
In the same way, only after losing everything, Margaret understands. Her son David in a first moment rejects her, feeling repressed and deceived by his mother, but then with the blessings of the mother he can find is future. Woodard deserves praise for his acting skills and his ability to show the growth of character and express how David becomes a man. The husband Luke dies in her home, but not after declaring their reciprocal feelings and love. The Harlem corner church community decides to reject Margaret by removing her from her role of pastor. However, this is a liberation and a release for Margaret. Again the use of gestures and the acting space reveals its importance: In a perfect diagonal that is a cathetus of the biggest stage triangle and brings from the altar to the dead husband’s bed, Margaret spoils her preacher cassock and runs to her husband.

There is something new in Margaret’s rejection: hope. There’s no hope for Oedipus; only in another play, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, is Oedipus finally the recipient of the mercy of the gods. But Margaret’s story and mistakes give the audience hope and faith: “The stone the builders rejected/has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22 and Matthew 21:42 NIV). That is the “Amen” corner: A corner where you see hope.
The audience at the Sidney Harman Hall participated directly with the actors on the stage. So attractive and passionate was the performance. In fact, after the show, Baldwin’s celebrations went further with other interactive performances. Painter Lionel Daniels made an impromptu tempera work, just inspired by a Biblical verse and ignited by Wassoulou music, featuring a kora (string instrument from Western Africa), played by Malian percussionist Amadou Kouyate, from a family tradition of griots, oral singers and performers. A short, impressive performance that at the same time connected to African ancestries and projected to the future of the African American culture.
“The Amen Corner” stage pictures by Scott Suchman © The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to LeeAnet Noble for inviting me to the performance and for polishing my English.