James Baldwin’s image as an African American racial spokesperson during the 1950’s and 1960’s guarantees his place in American cultural history. His fiction and essays, both aesthetically and as charts of the movement from universalism to militancy in African American thought, have earned for him serious and lasting attention. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s significance as a dramatist remains problematic. In large part because of Baldwin’s high public visibility, Blues for Mister Charlie was greeted as a major cultural event when it opened on Broadway at the ANTA Theater on April 23, 1964. Baldwin’s most direct expression of political anger to that time, the play echoed the warning to white America sounded in The Fire Next Time, the essay that had catapulted Baldwin to prominence in the mass media. Despite its immediate impact, however, Blues for Mister Charlie failed to win lasting support. Numerous African American critics, particularly those associated with the community theater movement of the late 1960’s, dismissed the play as an attempt to attract a mainstream white audience. Mainstream critics, drawing attention to the contradiction between Baldwin’s political theme and his attack on protest writing in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” dismissed the play as strident propaganda. Critics of diverse perspectives united in dismissing the play as theatrically static. The play’s closing, following a four-month run, underscored its failure to realize the early hopes for a new era in African American theater on Broadway.
Ironically, Baldwin’s reputation as a dramatist rests primarily on The Amen Corner, a relatively obscure play written in the early 1950’s, produced under the direction of Owen Dodson at Howard University in 1954, and brought to Broadway for a twelve-week run only in April, 1965, as an attempt to capitalize on the interest generated by Blues for Mister Charlie. Examining the tension between religious and secular experience, The Amen Corner maintains some interest as an anticipation of the thematic and structural use of music in African American plays during the Black Arts movement . Although Baldwin’s drama fails to live up to the standards set by his prose, the heated public discussion surrounding Blues for Mister Charlie attests its historical importance as one element in the political and aesthetic transition from the nonviolent universalism of African American thought in the 1950’s to the militant nationalism of the 1960’s.
Baldwin’s plays examine the self-defeating attempts of characters to protect themselves against suffering by categorizing experience in terms of simplistic dichotomies. Like Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Amen Corner concentrates on the failure of the dichotomy between “Temple” and “Street” to articulate the experience of the congregation of a Harlem storefront church. Like The Fire Next Time and Another Country, Blues for Mister Charlie emphasizes the black-white dichotomy shaping the murderous racial conflict that devastates both blacks and whites psychologically. Where Baldwin’s fiction ultimately suggests some means of transcending these tensions, however, his plays frequently remain enmeshed in dramatic structures that inadvertently perpetuate the dichotomies they ostensibly challenge. Paradoxically, Baldwin’s problems as a playwright derive from his strengths as a novelist. His use of the tradition of African American folk preaching as the base for a narrative voice capable of taking on a powerful presence of its own frequently results in static didacticism when linked to a character onstage. Similarly, the emphasis on the importance of silence in his novels highlights the tendency of his plays to make explicit aspects of awareness that his characters would be highly unlikely to articulate even to themselves. As a result, conceptually powerful passages in which characters confront the tension between their ideals and experiences tend to freeze the rhythm onstage. As African American playwright Carlton Molette observed in a comment that applies equally well to Blues for Mister Charlie, “The Amen Corner is at its worst as a play precisely when it is at its best as literature.”
The Amen Corner
Nowhere are these difficulties seen more clearly than in Baldwin’s treatment of the tension between institutionalized religion and moral integrity in The Amen Corner. Like Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Amen Corner challenges the dichotomy between the holy Temple and the sinful Street, a tension that shapes the play’s entire dramatic structure. Accepted unquestioningly by most members of Sister Margaret Alexander’s congregation, the dichotomy reflects a basic survival strategy of blacks making the transition from their rural Southern roots to the urban North during the Great Migration. By dividing the world into zones of safety and danger, church members attempt to distance themselves and, perhaps more important, their loved ones from the brutalities of the city. As Baldwin comments in his introduction to the play, Sister Margaret faces the dilemma of “how to treat her husband and her son as men and at the same time to protect them from the bloody consequences of trying to be a man in this society.” In act 1, Margaret attempts to resolve the dilemma by forcing her son David, a musician in his late teens, into the role of servant of the Lord while consigning her estranged husband Luke, a jazz musician, to the role of worldly tempter. Having witnessed the brutal impact of Harlem on Luke, she strives to protect her son by creating a world entirely separate from his father’s. Ultimately, however, the attempt fails as David’s emerging sense of self drives him to confront a wider range of experience; meanwhile, Luke’s physical collapse, which takes place in the “safe zone,” forces Margaret to acknowledge her own evasions. The most important of these, which reveals Margaret’s claim to moral purity as self-constructed illusion, involves her claim that Luke abandoned his family; in fact, she fled from him to avoid the pain caused by the death of a newborn daughter, a pain associated with...
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