Baldwin’s Harlem Comes to London

A production of The Amen Corner has enthralled Britain with its universal themes on religion.

Lucian Msamati as Luke and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sister Margaret (Richard Hubert Smith)
Lucian Msamati as Luke and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sister Margaret (Richard Hubert Smith)

Like all great drama, The Amen Corner is both specific to its 1950s Harlem milieu and wholly timeless and universal. With the possible exceptions of Langston Hughes and Chester Himes, no other writer is as synonymous with Harlem as James Baldwin. He possessed a very palpable love-hate relationship with black America’s spiritual mecca in New York City, and the paradoxical notion of freedom-in-exile thoroughly imbues this play.

Harlem made Baldwin. It nurtured him and fashioned him — intellectually, artistically, socially and sexually — and yet he yearned to escape its clutches, seeking racial dignity and artistic freedom in Paris. When Luke joyfully tells Margaret that their son has finally managed to escape her overbearing clutches and declares, “He’s in the world. He’s living,” it is a resolutely life-affirming, poignant moment and one in which Baldwin’s humanism emerges triumphant.

We witness, too, the raw pain of Margaret’s apostasy and her regret at having devoted the best part of her life to ideals that she duly realizes are, in fact, false — but we also see the heartfelt liberation that apostasy can bring. Yet Baldwin’s play is principally about the redemptive power of love. Margaret’s road to self-knowledge is an arduous and painful one, but at the play’s close, despite losing the church, she gains something of even greater value.

With his lyrical articulation of the beauty of secular salvation and the intrinsic nobility of profane (as opposed to sacred) love, Baldwin is more relevant than ever — a timely, sagacious voice in an increasingly dangerous world where strident religious faith is becoming alarmingly omnipresent.

So praise the Lord! Baldwin’s back in town. London is undoubtedly much richer for having this fecund slice of Harlem life from which to learn. Echoing Dante’s conclusion to The Divine Comedy, Baldwin serves to remind us that love is the animating principle of the universe. Long may this secular saint inspire us with his deep, benevolent humanity and instill us with the wisdom of this rousing sermon on the indomitable power of love.

Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.