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God’s little corner
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Although James Baldwin is considered one of America’s greatest novelists and essayists, not many people know he also was a playwright.

His first play, The Amen Corner, addresses the theme of role church plays in the African-American family. It also looks at the effects of prejudice, and the complex relationship between religion and earthly love.

Students in the visual and performing arts program at Savannah State University are bringing Baldwin’s play to life. Joan McCarty, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is the play’s co-director.

“In some ways, the play is semi-autobiographical,” McCarty says. “James Baldwin was a boy preacher. If you look at his famous novel Go Tell It On The Mountain, the character of the young boy is Baldwin.”

Baldwin’s early life also influenced The Amen Corner. “He only wrote two plays, The Blues for Mr. Charlie and The Amen Corner,” McCarty says. “He wanted to put to stage some of his experiences in the Pentecostal (Sanctified) Church.”

The Amen Corner is about a gathering of people who have started their own “corner” church in Harlem. “They haven’t even graduated to a storefront,” McCarty says.

The main character is Margaret, who lives in an apartment with her son, David, and sister, Odessa. She has taken upon herself the leadership of the group and is the church’s minister.

“Of course, there’s a church fight,” McCarty says. “Some of the congregation want Margaret to leave the church because she’s  very strict. Members aren’t allowed to read the funny papers. One member wants to earn a living driving a liquor truck and she won’t allow it. And there’s always one person who thinks they will be a better pastor.”

But church problems aren’t Margaret’s only woes. “Margaret is running away from things in her past,” McCarty says.

“Her husband was a jazz musician and a sinner,” she says. “He appears in Act 1 and makes it clear he never abandoned her and their son. She abandoned him.”

By the end of Act 1, Margaret is going on a trip to Philadelphia to help another church. “While she’s gone, the church fight begins,” McCarty says.

“Her son decides he doesn’t want to be in the church, he wants to be a musician. She comes back to all these fights and then finds out her husband is dying.”

Margaret is in dire straits. “She’s about to lose everything she has to hold onto, including her church,” McCarty says.

The play recreates the church experience, right down to the music. But it’s not just about religion.

“It’s also about family relationships,” McCarty says. “The father is really trying to reconcile with his son. Margaret has a sister who is like a second mother to David, and she’s a rock for Margaret.”

Written during the 1950s and first performed in 1965, The Amen Corner is still relevant today. “Every day, we see someone falling from a position of power, whether it’s church or politics,” McCarty says. “So many people are familiar with these kinds of fights and disagreements that go on in churches.”

The cast is made up of theater majors and one theater minor at SSU. “We wanted the students to experience many different kinds of genres in theater,” McCarty says.

“We’re going to focus on pieces that will educate and give our young people the opportunity to get a workout,” McCarty says. “We sat down and said, ‘What would be a good piece to better educate the students?’ I’ve directed The Amen Corner a number of times and been in it a couple of times.”

Baldwin achieved considerable success with The Amen Corner. “This play went to Broadway,” McCarty says. “Twice, actually.

“There are eight main characters and a choir -- all together, about 14 people in the cast,” she says. “The students are loving it.

“In some ways, it’s close to their own experiences,” McCarty says. “Many are members of Baptist churches and sanctified churches.”

The students also are enjoying portraying the people presented in the play. “The characters Baldwin weaves are so strong and vibrant,” McCarty says. “The students are having a great time with it. So are Gary and I.”

In the end, Margaret has learned an important lesson. “She thinks she is such a good Christian, but by the end of the play, begins to understand that she really isn’t,” McCarty says. ‘‘As she says, ‘To love the Lord is to love all His children -- all of them, every one -- and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!’’’ 


Savannah State University will present The Amen Corner Nov. 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 19 at 3 p.m. in the Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium. Admission is $5 for the general public and $2 for students.