Customer Reviews

1 Review
5 star:
4 star:    (0)
3 star:    (0)
2 star:    (0)
1 star:    (0)
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
Most Helpful First | Newest First

5.0 out of 5 stars So universal and yet so Black, 19 Sept. 2013
This review is from: The Amen Corner (Paperback)
A very important and fascinating play from the black stage. Not so important because of the power struggle in this black fundamentalist Christian church but because of four other dimensions: The role of women in society; the place of religion as an alienation in society; the musical perspective in society; and the place of love for father, mother and son in society. These four questions are universal, and yet the play situates them in the black community of New York.

I will not develop the power struggle. One younger woman took over from an older man and is pushed aside by another woman who takes over. This church, maybe most churches, is the locale of ambition and social climbing. The arguments of this power struggle have nothing to do with religion. It is plain power struggle for the sake of power which also means financial resources and some kind of comfort represented by a brand new Frigidaire, though such a position is always fragile. What's most shocking is that the arguments used are private, intimate and personal, often under the belt: they have nothing to do with religion that is only the covering of the personal ambition and rivalry if not hatred of these church elders.

Far more interesting are the four other levels.

The role of women in society is central. Margaret became the pastor of this church very fast and pushed aside an older man. The question of women's authority is constantly present. There is only one man in the congregation, Brother Boxer, who is constantly kept under pressure by Margaret because he is driving a delivery truck for an alcoholic beverage business. Margaret considers you cannot be an accessory to a sin and alcohol is a sin in itself, alcohol and not alcoholism: if alcohol did not exist there would be no alcoholism. The reasoning is naïve but we understand that in fact she keeps that MAN under pressure because she has some accounts to settle with men in general, her husband in particular, Luke. Brother Boxer expresses the principle that women must be under the control of men and he will use that argument against Margaret to dispose of her, not only depose her: she has no man to control her. Her husband Luke did not abandon his family, as she has pretended for ten years, but she left her husband taking her son along after the still-born delivery of her second child, a daughter. It is revealed later that she baby was still born because of the parents' poverty and the mother's undernourishment. No use discussing this argument. Let's take it at face value.

Luke is a jazz trombone player and he does not make a lot of money and runs along with the main flaw of this activity: alcoholism. He turns up in the play on his last leg before dying. The confrontation is difficult and Margaret is obliged to acknowledge she left him and not the reverse. This becomes at once a major shortcoming in Margaret for the main opposition embodied in Sister Moore who immediately airs the idea that a woman pastor has to be pure. If abandoned by her husband she is the victim of men. But if it is the reverse she is impure whereas she, Sister Moore, has never known, nor desired, a man, at least so she says. This myth of purity on the side of women is absolutely reduced to sexual virginity. It is in no way a purity of the heart, or the soul, but only of the sexual drive that has to be inexistent. There the play is particularly caustic because Margaret discovers little by little that she still loves Luke and has always loved Luke, and she comes to the idea that Christianity is founded on love: a Christian is supposed to love all his or her neighbors as himself or herself. That blocks any kind of rejection, of any neighbor on any possible motive. If you love you also forgive. It is not an obligation, it is an implication. If there is no forgiveness there is no love. Margaret discovers this little by little. And she steps down from the pulpit at the end because she has finally understood that.

This then enables us to see the alienating role or use of religion in society when this religion becomes a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Note it is not the Bible that is at stake. It is not Christianity that is at stake. It is valid for all religions. Any fundamentalist reading of any "sacred" text is necessarily in contradiction with the modern world and hence leads necessarily to bigotry. Religion is not a revealed something from high in the sky, but an invention of mankind to cope with the world and the human species' survival and expansion. Then, and this is a fundamental attitude of all men or women, the invention is fetishized into a sacred and untouchable text that has to be interpreted only in one way. When we know the tremendous variety of interpretation of the Christian canon to be a fundamentalist sounds slightly crazy. But it is exactly the same thing with Islam or Buddhism. This play shows that bigotry based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible in so many details of concrete real material and spiritual life, that it becomes at this level a real manifesto: religion has to be an inspiration to love and cannot be in anyway the justification of any rejection. Margaret understands that when her unwavering dogma rejects her husband she still loves, leads her son to going away to live his own life and not be stifled or choked to death by his mother, and then also in her very un-empathetic reaction to Ida Jackson's demand whose suffering: child is withering away and finally dies in hospital. The first reaction is to advise this mother to leave her husband, which she refuses to do. The second piece of advice is to accept the will of God who knows better what the mother needs. The woman then reacts strongly because she considers she does not need that suffering, but she needs love and does not find it. The woman has lost two children and Margaret's only wise crack (for her it is wisdom of course) is to advise the mother to make another child. The best part is that Margaret falls from her pulpit pushed by a woman with the support of a man and another woman on the basis of arguments of the same cruel inspiration, well not that inspired, rather very ill-motivated by the same cruel vision of life.

Music is important in this play, as always with James Baldwin. The father, Luke, is a jazz trombone player. The son, David, is, or is to be, a jazz piano player. Music is fundamental in this church too with an evolution about how to use it from a plain piano, or keyboard today, which is the very minimum in a black church, though with a lot of singing, to the introduction of drums and horns of some kind coming from a sister church in Philadelphia. Music is here again the core and heart of David's self and objective in life. Note he is perfectly well named since King David was the founder of the music school of Jerusalem some 25 centuries ago. The father, Luke, is also well named since he is one of the Gospel writers and Luke's Gospel is supposed to be the most sensitive and empathetic, Luke being a doctor by profession and well accustomed to dealing with suffering. A lot should be said on these two names and men.

Music is seen in its human ambiguity. Music is transcendence from real material life to spiritual mental beauty, but at the same time it is also surrounded by alcohol, tobacco, prostitution or "fornication" in bars and night clubs. It is difficult for a musician to avoid being tempted. Note in this early play by Baldwin the theme of music being the field of multiple mergers, among them love and any kind of love including gay love, is not yet present or developed. Yet this music is attached to the love David dreams or remembers at first for his father and then the same love he finally meets in reality, his father being there in front of him. This love is expressed by the borrowing and bringing to the apartment of a phonograph to play a record of his own father's old trombone playing. A gift to his father, an epiphanic experience for David and a disturbing yet revelational moment for Margaret. It is probably the hearing of that trombone music that determines Margaret to accept to step down from the pulpit without a fight. She is moving towards another phase in her life that will have to do with love since she will have to recapture David's love after finding him in the bid city.

The final level that is universal here is the relations between a father, a mother and a son, not so much from the points of view of the mother or the father, but from the point of view of the son. When a son is raised in an atmosphere that is too heavy, he feels pressurized and will have the natural tendency of lying to be able to develop his own private and personal life. When time comes the son will have to leave and no one will be able to stop him. The father will have to be there because his absence is a loss and the son may go out to find him, to establish contact with him or any substitute or surrogate. The mother is essential too but she may be choking the boy into withering and that is lethal. It is natural that the son wants to go out and leave to live his own life. It is sick for any son to remain locked up in the family and his parents, and in this case his mother only. It is often easier for the father to accept the departure of his son than it is for a mother to accept and support it. This play insists on the necessity for the son to avoid excessive attachment to the mother and for the mother to avoid excessive overpowering control over the son. Strangely enough it seems that the presence of the father is a guarantee that the mother should not be overwhelmingly possessive. The mother cannot decide what the son will be and do, and what's more the mother must not decide what the son will be and do. But that is difficult for a mother, alienating in a way and frustrating.

When all that is said we have to wonder what makes this play black and not white. In fact only small details are typically black, starting with the numerous gospels sung in the church and in plain life. Then this musical dimension is at once widened by jazz brought in by the father, and then by the son, and here to we have a black reference.

But there are smaller details that show how black the play is. It is often connections with the other fiction by James Baldwin. Ida Jackson's son is called Daniel and one of the last songs in Just Above My head is also Daniel (with the "cup of trembling" brought by the burden of the Word of the Lord [Zechariah, 12:1-3], echoed by Sister Moore, the ambitious bigot, when she says that she has "to burden your [Margaret's] sister with a heavy burden" the way the son Daniel becomes a burden for Margaret in her lack of empathy) and this Daniel song is sung by Arthur Montana in Paris. This Daniel makes three male names with a Biblical dimension. This Biblical inspiration is basic in black religion and life.

Then Brother Boxer reporting on David says: ". . . not five minutes ago, I seen him down on 125th Street with some white horn player - the one he say he go to school with - and two other boys and three girls. . . That boy [David] had a cigarette between his lips and had his hand on one of them girls, a real common-looking, black little thing, he had his hand on her. . ." We can even note this report on the girl is slightly racist, at least condescending.

Margaret even goes one step further in the racist apprehension of the connection between David and some woman when she accuses David who arrives in the morning of his last Sunday in the family after a night out: "stinking from whiskey and some no-count dirty black girl's sweat."

But the main black trait of the play is the language which is Black American English all along. But apart from these few details and the language itself the play is dealing with universal themes and problems. And that explains why it was badly received by white critics who probably considered that black man was noty exactly minding his own black business, at the time of the first production, but at the same time it may explain the vast support and acceptance from the mostly black audience that came to see the show.

Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

Most Helpful First | Newest First

This product

The Amen Corner
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin (Paperback - 1 Jan. 1961)
In stock on June 2, 2015
Add to basket Add to wishlist
Only search this product's reviews