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James Baldwin’s Play Comes to UCSC

BY Clare Zimmerman

Next week, the UCSC African American Theater Troupe will present its second annual play, Amen Corner by James Baldwin. "The play cuts across the heart of the black community," said director Don Williams. "It depicts a battle of the minds, dealing with family and family values."

Set in the early ‘60s on the East Coast, the play centers around the struggles of a single mother, Margaret Alexander, to raise her son David, and to follow what she sees as her spiritual calling as pastor in the local Pentecostal church." Margaret is very strong, but at the same time very proud," said senior theater arts major Joanell William’s, who plays Margaret. "I see her as a woman that retreats to the church after a painful marriage and the loss of her baby girl."

Margaret faces criticism from church member Brother Boxer, who says the main reason she is working as a female pastor is because she is without "a man to rule over her." Margaret left her husband Luke, because his career as a jazz musician did not conform to her view of moral righteousness. Because of this, it is particularly upsetting to Margaret when her 18-year-old son David, wants to pursue jazz professionally also.

"when the play begins," said Joanell Williams, "it has been ten years since the last time she saw her husband and she is very set in her ways. By the end, though, she sees that her way was not the only way."

The main conflict in the play arises when Luke returns to reconcile with his family. "Luke is worldly, a womanizer, and he drinks a lot," said George Harris, a third year economics major, about his role in the play. "When he returns after ten years he is sick and realizes he is dying."

According to Don Williams, the play deals with universal themes relevant to problems African American face today. "Raising kids together has been a struggle for the black male and female, which can be seen in the alarming percentage of black woman raising kids on their own, " he said. "This play deals with relationships, and the Bible says the godly plan for relationships is marriage. A man must learn to look upon his wife as a queen and to make sure she is happy and content."

Director William’s said h chose this play because of the powerful writing style of James Baldwin. "The play has a very realistic, vivid quality that brings out a lot of truth from Baldwin’s characters," Williams said.

Harris, who auditioned for the play partially because he admired Baldwin’s writing, said, "The beauty of the play is that it’s done in the vernacular, in a very straightforward way."

The role of the church within the black community is a central focus of Amen Corner, reflecting Baldwin’s own upbringing in a strongly religious family. Director William’s’ interpretation of the play highlights spiritual themes and the positive influence of the church for African Americans. "For blacks, the church has been an arena for hope and joy and peace," he said.

 

"The church has clearly demonstrated its ability to rejuvenate people in a way that they can’t find anywhere else."

The troupe visited various African American churches in Santa Cruz to get a strong feeling for the setting of the play and to better develop their parts. "African American churches have a definite style that is not as restricted, but that involved talking back and forth to the minister," said Joanell William’s.

The production aims to represent church life as authentically as possible, so the progression of the drama is interspersed with singing and traditional gospel prayers. "There will certainly be a high, spiritual gospel energy flowing through the room," said Don William’s. "It would not surprise me if it made you want to get up and clap and sing."

The Amen Corner will run Feb. 17-20 at 8p.m. at the Stevenson Dining Hall.


    
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