Themes

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Religion
Religion is a central theme in Baldwin’s play. The first seventeen pages of the play are taken up with a Sunday morning church sermon, led by the pastor, Sister Margaret Anderson. Baldwin has noted that this material was in part based on his own experiences as a young minister. Baldwin also wished the theater audience to be swept up in the experience of actually attending a church service. The role of religion in Margaret’s life is examined and questioned by various characters throughout the play. While Margaret presents herself as a pure, holy woman who has been abandoned by her husband, others point out that she has used religion as an excuse to escape from the problems of the material world. It is Luke who finally impresses upon Margaret the idea that she has misinterpreted the significance of religion. Luke points out that human love is not at odds with religion, but is in fact an important element of religion. It is only after she has lost her son, her husband, and her congregation that Margaret is able to appreciate Luke’s words. Her final words to her congregation confirm her understanding.

Poverty
Although not one of the play’s most prominent themes, the impact of poverty permeates the play as an underlying condition of the lives of the characters. Margaret berates Brother Boxer for taking a job driving a liquor delivery truck, asserting that it is sinful of him to spend his day providing liquor to people. Sister Boxer, Brother Boxer’s wife, however, complains that Margaret is not taking into account the importance of earning a living and supporting a family. In other words, it is economic necessity, based on the limited availability of jobs to African-American men during that time period, which requires that Brother Boxer accept the best job he can find. Poverty is also an underlying theme in the death of Margaret’s infant, years before the play takes place, and the death of Mrs. Ida Jackson’s infant. It is made clear that these babies became sick and died due to poor nutrition (and perhaps inadequate medical care) because of their poverty. Reference is also made to the limited availability of jobs for African-American women, as one character refers to her work as a maid in the home of a white woman. Thus, while there are no white characters who appear in the play, the black community is presented within a broader context of racial inequality in which African-American women have little choice but to work in positions of servitude to white women, and African-American men are compelled to accept whatever jobs may be available to them.

Love
Many critics have noted that one of the recurring themes throughout Baldwin’s fiction is that of love. Baldwin states in his ‘‘Notes’’ to the published play that the first line he wrote was Margaret’s in Act III: ‘‘It’s an awful thing to think about, the way love never dies!’’ Margaret throughout most of the play has made the mistake of substituting religion for the love of her own husband. Luke insists that he still loves her, and yet she continues to deny her own feelings of love for him. Through the character of Luke, the love of a woman is presented as a necessity to the survival of black men in a racist society; Luke’s downfall is attributed to Margaret’s withholding of love from him. It is only at the end, just before Luke dies, that Margaret is able to understand the power of love: ‘‘Maybe it’s not possible to stop loving anybody you ever really loved. I never stopped loving you, Luke. I tried. But I never stopped loving you.’’ Baldwin explains that although Margaret, by the end, ‘‘has lost everything,’’ she ‘‘also gains the keys to the kingdom.’’ He goes on to say that ‘‘The kingdom is love, and love is selfless, although only the self can lead one there. She gains herself.’’

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Characters