Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

In his ‘‘Notes’’ for the first publication of The Amen Corner in 1968, Baldwin recalls that writing the play was ‘‘a desperate and even rather irresponsible act.’’ With one published novel to his name (Go Tell It on the Mountain), Baldwin was not in a strong position to succeed with his first play. As his agent at the time informed him, ‘‘the American theatre was not exactly clamoring for plays on obscure aspects of Negro life, especially one written by a virtually unknown author whose principal effort until that time had been one novel.’’ Nevertheless, Baldwin forged ahead, and The Amen Corner, written in the 1950s, was first produced on the campus of Howard University, then in Los Angeles, before opening on Broadway in 1965. While it won the 1964 Foreign Drama Critics Circle Award, the play was not published in book form until 1968.

Critics have commented on the artistic success of Baldwin’s play as a dramatic stage production. Carlton W. Molette, writing in 1977, stated that The Amen Corner ‘‘is one of the most successful Afro-American plays that I have seen.’’ Molette asserts that ‘‘The first professional production was moving as theater ought to be but seldom is.’’ Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, asserting that ‘‘The Amen Corner is a better play than its production history or critical attention would seem to indicate,’’ especially praises the play for its qualities as a stage production, particularly in Baldwin’s use of music: ‘‘the play is certainly constructed in such a way as to truly ‘come alive’ on the stage. Much of that liveliness and power to involve is transmitted through the music. Group singing, individual singing, instrumental accompaniment, jazz (Luke on record), all provide choral commentary on character and conflict.’’

Several critics have noted the play’s embodiment of aesthetic values put forth by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Darwin T. Turner explains that ‘‘The Amen Corner seems more clearly designed as a drama written about black experience for a black audience. In this respect, it resembles Black Arts drama, in which the dramatist presumes that he must write without concern for the white spectator, who exists outside the black experience and without comprehension of it. I do not wish to imply that Baldwin consciously designed the play for the education of a black audience. Instead, I am suggesting that he found strength in writing...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)