In 1964, the Writers’ Stage Theatre in New York City staged the first production of Amiri Baraka’s satirical one-act play about religion, The Baptism. The play was presented and published under Baraka’s given name, LeRoi Jones. According to Tish Dace and Andrew O. Jones in the Reference Guide to American Literature, the play ‘‘jarred and amused its spectators’’ but also ‘‘drew charges of both obscenity and blasphemy.’’ That year, Baraka began garnering attention as a major playwright, with a number of his other plays also opening, including the Obie Award-winning Dutchman. The Baptism was also published in 1967, together with an earlier Baraka play, under the title The Baptism and The Toilet.
The Baptism is a challenging play on a number of levels. For example, some of the language and subject matter is of an adult nature and offensive to some. In addition, the characters are less individuals than they are representations of particular groups or ideas. The play begins with a minister’s attempts to encourage a homosexual to change his ways. A boy comes to the church to be baptized, but his sins become a heated topic of discussion, launching angry accusations and a violent end. Throughout the play, the boy’s identity remains a question and a source of strife for the other characters—is he simply a clever teenager, skilled at deception, or is he actually some sort of deity, maybe even Christ?
The Baptism is a one-act play that takes place inside a Baptist church in New York City during the early 1960s. The play opens with the Minister and the Homosexual speaking to each other and running in place. The Minister wants to save the Homosexual’s soul, but the Homosexual is making cynical comments about the Minister and religion in general.
The Boy enters the church carrying a bag. The Minister sees him as an innocent child interested in being baptized, and the Homosexual sees him as ‘‘rough trade,’’ a slang term for a male prostitute who engages in violent sex acts. The Boy admits that he has committed some sins. The Homosexual attempts to distract the Boy by dropping his trousers, revealing that he is wearing red leotards. This angers the Minister, who rushes at the Homosexual. The Homosexual defends himself by saying that he is ‘‘the Son of Man’’ and has ‘‘done nothing not accounted for in the book of days.’’ These are both biblical references, and the latter may also indicate that the Homosexual believes that any act he has committed is not new or different and should therefore be acceptable. The Homosexual indicates that the Boy should not trust the Minister.
The Old Woman rushes into the church as the Homosexual and the Minister are exchanging insults, and she claims that the Boy is an ‘‘agent of the devil.’’ A lively discussion ensues among the Minister, the Old Woman, the Boy, and the Homosexual. The Old Woman insists that the Boy is an evil sinner and then nearly passes out in religious ecstasy; the Minister wants to forgive him; the Boy insists that he has done nothing wrong; and the Homosexual, while suggesting that the Boy could serve as his secretary, sings, dances, and throws confetti. Eventually, the Boy admits that the Old Woman must have seen him masturbating while he was praying, and he defends himself saying, ‘‘thinking of God always gives me a hard-on.’’
The Homosexual tries to get the Boy to dance with him, but the Boy refuses. This refusal wins the Boy praise from the Minister, who says to the Homosexual, ‘‘This is a gifted lad. You cannot sway him with your cant about religion or the evil pleasures of the flesh.’’ The Old Woman starts singing an old gospel song, and the Homosexual derides her. The Minister declares the Homosexual’s words blasphemous, and they exchange insults. The Boy asks if he is now saved, but the Homosexual mocks the idea that he could be saved from anything, let alone Satan. The Homosexual sings a song about wanting to experience everything possible and again asks the Boy to dance with him. The Minister intervenes, arguing that the Boy ‘‘can yet be saved.’’ The Homosexual laughs at the idea, responding sarcastically that the Boy ‘‘can yet be made sterile. Can yet be taught that blank walls yodel the crazy name of salvation.’’
A chorus of about six young Women of various sizes and ethnicities enters the church singing. They wear numbers pinned to their gauzy dresses. The Old Woman is enlivened, shakes her hips, and asks the Boy to dance with her. The Boy is shocked, as is the Minister, but the Homosexual jumps in and again asks the Boy to dance with him. The Boy refuses, saying that he has already sinned and should not sin again by dancing in a church. The Homosexual laughs at his seriousness and makes fun of how upset he is for having masturbated. He asks the Boy how often he masturbates; the Boy admits that he does so each time he prays, which is three times a day. The Homosexual considers this figure and praises the Boy for his regularity.
The Minister is outraged by the Boy’s admission, but the Homosexual calls him an ‘‘old hypocrite’’ and accuses him of having masturbated at least as often. The Minister states that God will strike the Homosexual dead, but this only encourages the Homosexual, who begins to sing a song about how exciting it would be to get ‘‘drilled with holy lightning.’’ The Boy is confused at this point and asks, ‘‘What shall I do?’’ The Homosexual responds, ‘‘Become a Christian so you can understand the symbolism.’’ The Boy asks to be baptized. The Homosexual thinks that baptism ‘‘might not be such a bad idea’’ for himself, as he could fi- nally see God.
The Boy demands that he be baptized immediately. Suddenly, one of the Women shouts at the Boy, ‘‘He’s the one,’’ and they all begin to call him ‘‘The Christ child come back. . . . the Son of God. . . . Chief Religious jelly roll of the universe.’’ They moan ecstatically and begin praying. The Minister and the Old Woman sink to their knees and praise the Boy, but the Homosexual is not convinced. He demands that the Boy prove he is Christ by turning the church into the White House, ‘‘or something cool like that.’’
The Boy next admits that he has lied in the past to the Women about his relation to God so that they would have sex with him, but he never meant for them to think he was Christ. The Homosexual is very impressed with the Boy’s deceit, but no one else hears the admission of the trickery. Finally, the Minister realizes that the Boy has ‘‘lied merely to further [his] lust.’’ This angers the Minister, the Old Woman, and the Women, who now call for his punishment. Intent on killing him, the group moves toward the Boy. The Homosexual tries to block them and is kicked down to the ground unconscious. ‘‘You must be sacrificed to cleanse the soul of man,’’ the Minister cries out to the Boy. The Boy begs for mercy but none is offered. He pulls a sword out of the bag he has with him and kills the Women, the Minister, and the Old Woman.
Suddenly, the Messenger enters the church on a motorcycle. He is dressed in a leather jacket with the words ‘‘The Man’’ and a crown stenciled on the back. He asks what has happened, and the Boy answers, ‘‘I have slain these sinners. . . . I am the Son of Man. The Christ.’’ The Messenger says that he has come to retrieve the Boy, sent by ‘‘the man. Your father.’’ He dances a mambo step through most of the rest of the play. The Boy argues with the Messenger, noting that he was sent to save people on ‘‘this earth.’’ The Messenger tells the Boy that his father is angry that he has failed in his assignment and that ‘‘the man is destroying the whole works tonight. With a grenade.’’ The Messenger and the Boy argue over whether the Boy should be forced to leave, with the Messenger calling the Boy by the name Percy.
The Messenger finally gets tired of arguing with the Boy, hits him over the head with a tire iron, and throws him over the back of his motorcycle. After they leave, the Homosexual rises from the pile of bodies on the stage and speculates on what has happened. ‘‘Damn, it looks like some really uninteresting kind of orgy went on in here,’’ he says, and again suggests that the Minister should not have catered to ‘‘rough trade.’’ As he leaves the church, thinking about getting a drink before the bars close for the evening, he wonders, ‘‘[W]hat happened to that cute little religious fanatic?’’
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