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The enduring legacy of black theater: “The Amen Corner”

Barbara Lewis | 6/27/2012, 7:55 a.m.

A conversation between Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of The Museum of African American History, and Barbara Lewis, director of the Trotter Institute.

To expand awareness of the significance of black theater, the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at UMass Boston recently presented a staged reading of “The Amen Corner” by James Baldwin.

The reading was convened by Project1Voice in New York and was part of a multi-city tribute to Baldwin that demonstrated the connectedness of black theater across the country.

Paying homage to black theater in Boston is especially apropos since black theater as a literary form came to life in Boston when “Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom” by William Wells Brown was published in 1858.  

The Trotter Institute, named after William Monroe Trotter — an early 20th century radical black newspaper publisher — was the only cultural organization in New England to participate in the national reading of Baldwin’s play.

In total, 28 black theaters and cultural organizations in 18 cities did a simultaneous reading of the Baldwin play.

The Boston cast presented the play in the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. Built by a generation that included veterans of the American Revolution, the African Meeting House symbolized status and autonomy. It was erected in the first decade of the 19th century. Much of the funding came from within the African American community, who galvanized and pooled funds as a result of being denied access to various venues, including churches and galleries.

Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart — a pioneering female orator — spoke at the African Meeting House. So did David Walker, the radical political journalist and novelist, historian and playwright Brown.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, the executive director of the Museum of African American History, acted in the recent production of “The Amen Corner.” Sarah Ann Shaw, the pioneering Boston journalist, portrayed one of the church elders. “The ancestors,” she said after the performance, “were here, smiling and pleased, urging us on, saying ‘Do more. Keep going.’ ”

Charlotte Golar Richie, senior vice president at YouthBuild USA and former Massachusetts State Representative, played the role of Margaret Alexander, the main character in “The Amen Corner.”

Alexander is the pastor of a storefront church in the North, modeled after the Harlem storefront where Baldwin preached the word when he was a boy. The role of Alexander’s sister is played by Kelly Chunn, local business owner.

Alexander’s estranged musician husband was played by Andre Porter, head of the state’s Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Barry Gaither, head of the National Center for African American Art in Roxbury, an institution started by Elma Lewis, played Brother Boxer, Sister Boxer’s husband.

During a recent rehearsal, Beverly Morgan-Welch had a conversation with me about the staged reading of “The Amen Corner.”

 Beverly, what was it about this project that appealed to you?

 I have always been attracted to the genius of James Baldwin. He deserves to be remembered and revered.

I acted in “The Amen Corner” while I was at Smith College, majoring in theater and speech. I was in the cast with the late Yolanda King, the eldest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of my dearest friends.