Saturday, June 02, 2012

Amen Corner at the Guthrie Theater, a review

First--let's acknowledge that I am apparently dead to joy. My cold dead heart keeps interfering with my ability to engage emotionally with movies, books, and now theater. I am also informed that the fact that I don't care for lychee is further evidence of my emotional stuntedness. Or maybe I am just too old and crotchety to do anything but yell at the kids these days to get off my lawn. Either one.

Second--my quarrel is with the play, and possibly the decision to stage it at all. The acting was uniformly excellent, and the music was outstanding. The stage set was detailed and effective, the costumes were perfect. As a period piece, as a cultural artifact of African-American experience, it was a perfectly presented 1954 play.

That said--this is the first play James Baldwin wrote, and it focuses on a pivotal week in the life of Margaret Alexander, a pastor in a tiny church in 1954 Harlem. Margaret, called Maggie, is a charismatic leader of a "praise Jesus" testifying type of church, who seems to have a truly sanctified life. She preaches against cards, liquor, and jazz music, even specifically warning one of the congregants not to take a job driving a truck for a liquor company so as not to enable alcoholism in others and not to jeopardize his own salvation. Her 18 year old son David plays piano for the services, and they live downstairs in the building with Maggie's sister Odessa. As the play opens, we see a church service that ends with a collection taken to send Maggie to spend a week in Philadelphia ministering to a sister church with a dying pastor.

Into this situation comes Maggie's husband and David's father, a jazz trumpeter named Luke, who is dying of tuberculosis. In front of several members of the board of elders, Luke reveals that Maggie is the one who left him, rather than the other way around. He then collapses, and gets installed in a bedroom where he is expected to die within days. Maggie leaves for Philadelphia, and in her absence everything changes.

The congregation begins to question her leadership, sparked by the situation with her husband. What kind of woman leaves her marriage? What kind of woman leaves her dying husband--and if she couldn't bring him to accept Jesus and the sanctified life, why were they allowing her to lead them? And just how much does it cost to go to Philadelphia anyway--that collection was over $40, and it only costs $3 if you go by bus. Maggie's obligation to her family should take precedence over her job, even if her job is God, shouldn't it? The bitterness grows--Brother Boxer is only trying to provide for his family, why shouldn't he take that truck driving job?

Meanwhile, David is facing his own crisis of conscience. He's nearly adult now, and studying music, and his mother's circumscribed world of church and home is no longer enough for him. The appearance of his father gives him a tangible model for a different kind of life, and he longs to go out into the world. He doesn't want to hurt his mother, but he also can't live the life she envisions for him, where he stays forever and eventually takes over the church.

At three and a half hours, this is just too much play. The structure shows its age, and it creaks more than a little bit. The testifyin' and amenin' at the beginning goes on well beyond what the audience needs to get the context. The self-satisfaction of the congregation smells hypocritical well before the cracks start to appear, which unbalances the message. These people aren't struggling with profound questions and self-doubt. They are spoiled and self-satisfied, angry at being berated by a woman, eager to turn on her and seize power and control from her at the first sign of weakness. Which makes the whole "give you life to God" appear less like a legitimate spiritual quest and more like self-medication to deal with the pain of life.  The cracks in Maggie's facade of holiness don't occasion any soul searching--it's more like "Mean Girls Goes to Church." It's purely a power struggle for tiny stakes (the leadership of an impoverished organization) rather than a search for the transcendent.

Luke's appearance raises a kind of weird dichotomy, that's hard to really take seriously in 2012. Can contemporary audiences really take seriously a claim that jazz is "devil's music" and even listening to it is to risk damnation? Seriously? I understand that may have been a real issue back when the play was written--the strict divide between church music and popular music made Ray Charles deeply controversial, bringing gospel tropes to his music the way he did. Now, it just seems like a quaint belief that carries no moral force.

Ultimately, the play works through several layers of superficial conflict to the real question--do you live in the world and accept all the joy and pain, or do you hide from it--and find out that hiding doesn't protect you like you thought it would. Maggie and Luke had a second child who died as a baby, and the pain of that loss was more than Maggie could bear. She fled to New York and struck a bargain with God--she would deny herself anything remotely connected to worldly pleasure, and he would keep her safe from pain.

Of course, God doesn't work like that, and so David grew up anyway and Maggie couldn't keep him "out of the world." He leaves to join a combo, touring and playing music. The congregation rejects Maggie's total control over their lives, and vote her out as pastor. Luke dies, and Maggie realizes that she never stopped loving him. She confronts her own deepest fears, and wonders whether she threw her life away, now that she has lost her church, her husband and her son--couldn't she have done better living some other way? She mounts the pulpit at the (hostile) church and recognizes that loving God means loving "all his Children" with all their faults. She goes back downstairs and curls up against Luke's body as the lights go out.

The play owes great debts to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. The entire David plot is basically The Glass Menagerie in Harlem--the domineering mother, the son's need to establish his independent identity. I guess the church plays the role of the crippled sister. Everybody has a monologue moment of crisis, a series of set pieces that follow each other like pearls on a string, and the play ain't over until everybody has had their solo. The creakiness of the format just gets louder the longer the play carries on.

Nor is it possible to swallow some of the basic assumptions that fuel the plot--at least for me. Apparently it's acceptable for a woman to have a career if her husband has left her; it is not acceptable for a woman to have a career if she leaves her husband. That betrays a fundamental failure as a woman, and marks her as unworthy to be a pastor. The sinfulness of jazz music is not explained, just assumed, and so it comes off as a silly prejudice equivalent to the kind of things mocked in The Music Man:

Mothers of River City! Heed the warning before it's too late! 
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption! The moment your son leaves the house, 
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee? 
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? 
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? 
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang? 
Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like "swell?"  
And "so's your old man?"
 I mean, the music they sing in church is syncopated and swinging, not all that far removed from jazz, a point underscored by the fact that Luke is able to play along at least once.

The issues here are big ones, and they continue to affect us. How does one deal with the loss of a child? It's obvious that the pain of that was so great that Maggie literally could not face going through it again and in a era where birth control was probably sketchy at best, it's not clear that she could have avoided another pregnancy if she had stayed. She felt that she couldn't rely on Luke--and there is evidence that he did his best, but she wanted him to be more consistent that he was. When she couldn't take his inconsistency, she turned to religion--who is more reliable than the omniscient, omnipotent God?

The problem for contemporary understanding is that the play doesn't really get all the way down to Maggie's character, on her specific issues. I would be interested in a play that explored the deep divide between what she needed from her husband and what he was able to give her--and how she responded to that. What were her options, realistically? Luke claimed that he still loved her, and Maggie seemed to feel that she had never stopped loving him, and their decade apart was caused by her fear and pain, based on the text of the play. Was that really a waste? Where is she going to go from here? Those are the real questions of the play, and by asking them but not answering them, Amen Corner seems to be making an argument that African-American church life is merely the opiate of the oppressed and powerless, a place to hide that will ultimately fail its members. Kind of bleak, really, but also something the play told us in the first scene, with all the congregants and their posturing sanctity. The message had been delivered in the first ten minutes--the extra three and a quarter hours wasn't really necessary.

But the music? The music was GREAT!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When will it ever end? There are numerous points in the last ~45 minutes that feel like it might hopefully finish. Oh-no. Let's start another monologue.
Way too long, way too obvious, way too little interest.
We considered leaving early, but kept feeling that it was about to end. Wrong.
Music great, some great acting.
The script needs lots of work, mostly editing. In a large way.
Director did not address that the script is vapid and needs to be tightened up. The story could play well in something less than 2 hours. (I think I could present the whole deal in about 10 minutes of dialogue.)