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...
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