Photo of the cast of The Amen Corner. Image credit: Scott Suchman / The Shakespeare Theatre
The following is an excerpt from an essay that appeared in James Baldwin Review, Volume 8 (Fall, 2022).
“I know you think I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m beginning to see—something.”
—James Baldwin, The Amen Corner
I will admit this here: I have been afraid of James Baldwin. I only feel encouraged to write this because I have not been alone with this fear. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., for instance, admits his early avoidance was a way to dodge the subsequent introspection and unearthed pain an encounter with Baldwin would invoke. In Michael R. Jackson’s musical, A Strange Loop, the main character, Usher, has visions of Black American cultural ancestors including Baldwin being so disappointed with him that they rise out of their graves to sing their disdain at him—which I found to be a surprisingly accurate depiction of my feelings as well. Similarly, in articulating his relationship with Shakespeare, Baldwin shares that at one point, he “feared him because, in his hands, the English language became the mightiest of instruments.” This fear parallels my own experience with Baldwin. I think I have been most afraid of not understanding Baldwin, of misinterpreting and even resisting his ideas. I held these sentiments as I attended the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner in Washington, DC, in September 2021, feeling intimidated, a bit overwhelmed, and worried that I did not even know where to start.
Of course, if my undergraduate or graduate students came to me naming similar apprehensions about engaging with a piece of art, I know exactly where I would begin. I specifically teach courses that center around my students’ experiences attending plays. Though the playwrights, actors, and crew of the performances have particular goals in mind or messages they wish to communicate through their art, that is not necessarily where I ask my students to direct their attention. As an arts-based educator and learning designer, I take a constructivist approach to teaching and learning experiences, operating with the assumption that students will learn and “make meaning” of an experience if they can, as George Hein puts it in “The Constructivist Museum”, connect it with what [they] already know.”
Hein goes on to describe constructivism as a teaching and learning model wherein “learners construct knowledge as they learn; they don’t simply add new facts to what is known, but constantly reorganize and create both understanding and the ability to learn as they interact with the world.” Instead of assuming that knowledge is purely “independent of the learner,” a constructivist view embraces how a learner will retain new knowledge and understandings if this information speaks to what already exists in the learner’s mind. What a learner might already know is vast; it can include content from their studies, memories, or life experiences. As art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis describes, arts-based engagements can shift something for an individual by reshaping how they see the world—the goal, as I see it, of the learning process itself. Therefore, I start my students down the path of focusing on their mental reorganizing to see where it leads them. I ask students to pay attention to the task of attending a play and the associations their minds make as they go through all elements of that journey—watching the play, yes, but also getting to the theatre, what they see in the theatre lobby, what they read in the program, and the thoughts they have beyond the curtain call.
In other words, I encourage students to make an experience with the arts their own. Moreover, in addition to being curious about how students go on a personal, internal journey that may prompt them to reconsider something in the world differently, I am also invested in how these internal thoughts begin to pivot outward toward agency and creating change in the world around them. Ultimately, I want to see if, after making an experience their own, students, in turn, want to make their own experiences.
For me, seeing The Amen Corner at STC, running for two weeks in September 2021 after its original run in early 2020 was cut short due the COVID-19 pandemic, was an opportunity for me to practice what I preach—or teach, as it were. In aiming to situate myself within the path I ask my students to follow, I decided to focus on two questions. First, what here allows me to make this experience my own? Secondly, how do those elements facilitate making my own experiences?
To answer this first question, I usually turn to the interpretive, educational, or supportive materials alongside a piece of art—such as wall text, a playbill, a hands-on activity, or an interactive website—that can help mediate the experience a viewer might have with the art itself. Museum education scholars such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Kim Hermanson, Nina Simon, and Karen DeSantis and Abigail Housen articulate how an audience member’s engagement with interpretive materials undergird a compelling experience with artwork. It is by no means guaranteed that a potential audience member will automatically make a connection between their life experiences, interests, knowledge, emotions, or memories with a piece of art. Interpretive or educational materials, however, can help a viewer create a personally meaningful connection with the art itself. These tools can help facilitate some kind of personal, participatory engagement—whether that is in an intellectual, tactile, or affective capacity—that ultimately feels rewarding to the viewer. A given interpretive item or approach will not be of interest to everyone in all situations. Nevertheless, these kinds of items increase the likelihood of a viewer fostering an initial, additional, or enduring personal involvement with a piece of art that leaves the viewer feeling like they have learned something, deepened their existing expertise, and ultimately addressed the curiosity that held their attention. I often hold a deep interest and appreciation for the design of these mediating and interpretive components. Even among my students, who have an intrinsic interest in a play due to their interest in our class—or the fact that they are being graded—there are nearly too many elements of the experience to absorb as well as a limited amount of information they can know about a performance before seeing the work itself. As a result, interpretive materials can be beneficially grounding or facilitative.
An initial avenue through which I was able to try to make this experience my own was through the curatorial choice by STC to stage The Amen Corner in the first place. Given that the play was first produced in Washington, DC, it seemed fitting for the production to be revisited in the district at STC for a few reasons. In 1955, Owen Dodson directed the first run of the play with a cast composed of the Howard University Players and performed at the university. As David Leeming notes in his Baldwin biography, the production received praise—or at least complaints Baldwin interpreted positively—for its inclusion of “Negro English” and Black American syntax. Additionally, Frank Leon Roberts describes Baldwin’s vision of the “black playwright … to serve as a ‘witness’ to and for the black experience,” and capturing of Black lives.
DC appears, then, to have been an ideal place for The Amen Corner’s debut. Just two years following The Amen Corner’s premiere in DC, the district became the first majority-Black major city in the United States. These demographics underscore the so-called “Chocolate City” as a site of Black culture, arts, and thought, and this appears to be something Baldwin himself experienced; Leeming describes how, during his stint at Howard with The Amen Corner, Baldwin connected with Black scholars and intellectuals who “demanded intellectual rigor” that differed from the work of navigating “white liberals” and “white intellectuals admiring his ‘surprising’ ability to articulate his condition.”
Of course, DC’s racial demographics have changed in the last sixty years, and due to “the nexus” of “immigration, gentrification, and displacement,” the city, while remaining diverse and international, is also less Black. Moreover, despite the city’s diversity, we can expect its theater audiences to be predominantly white. As the director of the STC production, Whitney White, explains, there can be tension between centering Black work and actors with white audiences. “[I]t’s a complicated thing,” White says, “the history of viewing the Black body in America … And then you come to the theater, which is usually predominantly white audiences, and people are looking to digest entertainment, looking to have catharsis, looking to feast … on the Black body in these ways.” Subsequently, there could be a risk of staging Black work in a way that ends up, per White’s language, “working so hard for the white gaze.”
Thankfully, White’s cognizance of this tension allows the curatorial choice to stage this play at STC to be ultimately expansive. For instance, White notes that she aimed to “honor the truth of what it feels like to be viewed by a white audience” in her direction and, as a result, there are instances throughout the play where the all-Black cast and dancers have their backs to the audience that she connects to a sense of Black agency. Even if Baldwin ultimately stopped perceiving Shakespeare as “one of the authors and architects of [his] oppression,” the sentiments of Western canonical literature or theatre actively marginalizing historically othered populations continues to resonate. As a result, I find the choice to center Black art and Black work in DC’s current context to be affirming.
Indeed, there may even be a sentiment that stretches beyond affirmation to reclamation or even defiance about The Amen Corner in general that seeps into this staging. Dramaturgs Soyica Diggs Colbert and Drew Lichtenberg note that, by the time the play began its Broadway run in 1965—ten years after debuting at Howard—it was then “a play out of time.” Frank Leon Roberts, more starkly, describes the Broadway tenure as “doomed” and a “failure” because of how its construction deviated from other Black theatre at the time. As E. Patrick Johnson has pointed out, Baldwin himself expresses some self-consciousness about being a novelist-turned-playwright, though despite the prospect of failure, he remained compelled to write the play regardless. Interestingly, Roberts proposes viewing Baldwin’s theatrical work through a lens that situates failure as an asset. Roberts uses the lens of the specifically “queer art of failure”—which includes a “willful refusal to adhere to normative paradigms of ‘success’”—in order “to suggest that theater is the space where Baldwin fails best.” Nontraditional elements—from the criticisms of the play’s dramatic structure to Baldwin’s apprehensions, to the queering of failure—are thereby centered in this staging in ways that may not have been possible with a traditional Shakespearian offering.
Ijeoma N. Njaka is the Senior Project Associate for Equity-Centered Design at the Red House and the Inclusive Pedagogy Specialist for the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. Njaka teaches courses on critical speculative design for anti-racism and learning from the arts. Learn more at www.ijeomanjaka.com.