When’s the last time you saw a play in which the main character was a black woman? If you’ve never seen one, you’re likely not alone. Although it’s the year 2020, and within the past year Slave Play and American Son were on Broadway, the number of American plays with black women as their leads staged in America still has immense room for improvement. As of today, zero are slated to appear on Broadway during the rest of the 2019-2020 season and the entirety of the 2020-2021 season. That’s why it’s shocking that, 55 years ago, The Amen Corner, a three-act play about a black woman pastoring a Pentecostal church in Harlem, N.Y., opened on Broadway, albeit more than a decade after its birth.
In 1953, following the publication of his widely heralded debut novel about faith, Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin steeped himself once more in the themes of religion and family to write a play about a woman known to her congregation as Sister Margaret. The Amen Corner premiered at Howard University in 1955.
Sixty-five years later, as debate still rages in many Christian communities over women’s calls to lead, the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., is staging a production of Baldwin’s largely overlooked play, the role of director held by the award-winning black actress, director, and writer Whitney White.
“It’s so revolutionary that Baldwin centered this [play] on a woman, her good and her bad, that he was brave enough to do that,” White told Sojourners. When she first encountered the play, she was blown away by its complexity and brilliance. Two actors of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Amen Corner — Jasmine Rush and Tristan André Parks — shared their director’s awe.
“There’s no big or small roles,” Rush said. “All the roles are huge. Everybody is a full human.”
Ida Jackson, the character Rush plays (when she’s not understudying for the role of Margaret), is a young woman who has lost a child and, apart from the injustices inflicted against black people in Harlem in 1953 — segregation, housing shortages, poverty — wrestles with faith and with why, although she’s surrounded by brothers and sisters of Sister Margaret’s congregation, she still feels abandoned.
“The majority of this play are black women,” said Parks, who plays Brother Washington and understudies for the role of Luke, the pastor Margaret’s husband. When he was 17, he played Margaret’s son, David, in a production his childhood church staged.
“Jimmy [Baldwin] speaks to the profundity of how black women in the church often serve as the underground for the church,” Parks says, “and how black women in this community have held this community together.”
The Amen Corner is returning to D.C. this month through March 15, as the nation delves deeper and deeper into its 2020 presidential race, during which the past and future votes of black churchgoers and black women have been — and will likely continue to be — scrutinized by many and viewed as monolithic.
“[The Amen Corner] is a black Julius Caesar,” White said. “At the same time, it’s an internal drama, about the politics and lies of a specific black community in 1950s Harlem.”
“What is it to search for understanding, as a black woman in 1950s Harlem?” asked Rush. “[The Amen Corner] forces me to reach into the depths of what it is to love unconditionally — and, really, the base of what faith is.”