'The Amen Corner' brings church challenges, life lessons to the stage

Mar 2, 2013

Community and campus converge in the cast of MU's production of "The Amen Corner," a play by James Baldwin that finishes its run this weekend. 

The play tells the story of an African-American woman who starts a small storefront church in Harlem in 1965. She's recently migrated there from the south with her 18-year-old son, who plays the church piano.

But unbeknownst to the congregation, she has a secret past. She was once married to a jazz musician who was an alcoholic, but after their child died, she left him. His arrival one Sunday sends a scandal through the church. 

The show has held a deep personal resonance with some of the cast members – five of them are ordained clergy.  

They've been able to "see themselves, and see their lives in the context of the play," said director Clyde Ruffin, chair of the theatre department at MU.  

They have an open prayer before every performance, and anyone is welcome to join in.

"Having so many ministers in the play, the prayers are really powerful," he said.

The show holds a dear place in the Ruffin's heart – he grew up in a small storefront church in Kansas City. His mother was the pastor, and he played the piano – much like the son in the play.

He also played the son in a college production of the the show almost 40 years ago. He has been wanting to do the show again – especially now that he's nearing the end of his academic career with MU. The show is true to his own beliefs and issues that are important to him.

There's that idea that art imitates life, and there's a particular beauty to the way that happens in live theatre. How does this show do that? 

"One of the things that it does is it focuses on church politics. And those are -- church politics transcend  all denominational and racial barriers. The characters are familiar, they just have different faces. And so the familiarity of the characters who populate the play is very accessible to everyone who comes to see it. Beyond that, the conflict between following your calling and balancing that with your commitment to family is a challenge for every believer. Where do we find that balance? How are we able to do both? How can you be completely dedicated to being obedient to what you believe that God is requiring of you, and then still balance that with your commitment to your children, your family, all of that, without losing either?" 

Big question, but what is the answer? How do you do that?

"When I was coming up, my mother always told us that your personal relationship with God is first. Your commitment to your family comes next. And then the work of ministry is third. Because if you sacrifice either of the first two, then the third one doesn't mean very much."

On a surface level, there are five ministers in the play. But on a deeper level, what intersection do you see between faith and theatre?

"My immediate response would be that Jesus in his teachings understood the role, the value, of performance because he spoke in parables, which were stories that had characters and situations. And He used those as a valuable and primary teaching method to reveal deeper  spiritual truths. And so because in the theatre we believe that art is the re-creation of life, or it is an artistic re-creating of life, that it has the same potential, the same value, to show us ourselves, to teach us life lessons about relationships and personal values."

What have you learned from this show?

"You cannot run away from your past – that if you have issues in your past, you can't hide those. You have to confront those, you have to deal with them, you have to surrender them and allow the healing to take place."

Listen to the full 10-minute interview with Ruffin:

Performance information:

"The Amen Corner," by James Baldwin, directed by Clyde Ruffin
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2
2 p.m. Sunday, March 3
Rhynesburger Theatre at MU

Buy tickets online or call 882-PLAY.

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. Tune in around 8:30 on Saturday mornings to hear our weekly updates.