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A gospel-flavored ‘Amen’

BY Gail Rich

James Baldwin’s "The Amen Corner" is a powerful exploration of ideas and spiritual dilemmas and an intensely emotional family drama. Beginning next Thursday, the UC Santa Cruz African American Theater Arts Troupe mounts a production of the 1965 drama, opening at Stevenson College and then Moving to Louden Nelson Community Center for a visit to downtown Santa Cruz.

Throughout the play, which takes place in and around a tenement church in New York City, gospel music punctuates and illuminates the action, taking the congregation (and the audience) to sublime heights even in the midst of all-too-human frailty and meanness.

Jonelle Williams, a UCSC senior Theater Arts major, says "There are people in this play I recognize from my own church." Williams, who has appeared in UCSC productions of "Phedre," " Ceremonies In dark Old Men," "For Colored Girls" and "The Devils," plays the central role of Sister Margaret, pastor the church, whose carefully constructed world of prayer and righteous living begins to fall apart when her beloved son David is seduced from accompanying services on the piano to playing with a jazz combo in a nightclub.

Margaret has sought a hiding place from the world - including her husband’s life as a jazz musician - by withdrawing into the "amen corner." Baldwin describes her dilemma: "How to treat her husband and son as men and at the same time protect them from the bloody consequences of trying to be a man in this society … her need for human affirmation, and also for vengeance, expresses itself in her merciless piety; and turns her into a tyrannical matriarch."

The play’s events move in swift sequence. Luke, the husband Margaret left years ago, reappears - terminally ill, seeking reconciliation, but unrepentant for the life he’s led. David declares his independence and leaves for the world. The church’s elders - all but Margaret’s sister Odessa - seize on her difficulties as evidence of her unfitness to be pastor, and oust her from the pulpit. At the moment of utter devastation, she experiences a revelation. As Baldwin describes it, "she has lost everything and gains the keys to the kingdom. The kingdom is love, and love is selfless, although only the self can lead one there. She gains herself."

"The Amen Corner" boasts a cast of 30, and all but a very few are called upon to sing gospel music as fervently and beautifully as a real church congregation would.

"We’ve gone around to different African-American churches in Santa Cruz, and observed some differences among different Baptist and Pentecostal worship," says director Don Williams (no relation to Jonelle). "Some praise the Lord by saying ‘Hallelujah’; some say "Thank you Jesus" Accompaniment might be drums, and keyboards, tambourines and guitars. Some are more delicate and refined - others are much less formal. It’s been truly wonderful for me and the cast, because everyone’s worked with us so generously - it has become a real community effort.


"The play really grabs the grass roots of black experience. In the African-American community, the church is always a center point, and foundation for the black family. From early times, people found joy in singing gospel hymns, which in turn, of course, have a close relation to the blues," Williams says.

Aifrcan-American students came together under Williams’ guidance to form the theater troupe more than a year ago, when they presented Lonne elder’s small-cast drama "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men." Audience loved it, awarding it standing ovations after every performance.

"I saw it ws filling a void here on campus," Williams says. "Black students needed an opportunity to perform and express themselves, to promote understanding of African American culture. ‘Ceremonies showed that the University is a community black students can develop and grow in. So we felt inspired to do another show this year, and involve lots more people."


Another inspiration for Williams and company was the chance for students to help other students. "We were all concerned that black student enrollment was dropping off each year at UCSC," says Jonelle Williams. "We decided to create a scholarship fund for African American students in the arts. It’s a great feeling to have a purpose; it’s been very positive. Now two other groups on campus are also involved, and we’re also getting a lot of non-arts majors to come out for the play."

Through all performances of "The Amen Corner" will be free, audiences will be invited to contribute to the scholarship fund, which this year will provide grants of $500 each to three students. The grants will be awarded on opening night.

One of the campus groups which has formed a natural alliance with the African-American Theater Arts Troupe is the African Gospel Ensemble, a campus choir whose performances are legendary for their electricity and enthusiasm. "There’s been quite a crossover. We’ve got several AGE members in the show," says Don William’s. "And now three or four of our actors have joined the choir!"

William’s also enlisted the help of gospel expert Elsa Hendricks, a San Jose resident who has led workshops and coaching sessions with the "Amen Corner" cast.

"She gave us such an understanding of those old songs were taught as children. She really made us understand how you have to feel it, how the rhythm is so important, and how to hod certain key verses and words to give the music the right impact."

Though Jonelle William’s has an extensive background on stage, she never considered herself a singer. "When Don said I had to sing, I said ‘I can’t‘ Our choir director caught me trying to hide in the back of the group, and she helped me to sing out. It was o scary in the beginning, but we all supported each other, and now we love it!

"I told Don ‘You’ve created a monster,’ because now I never stop singing."

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