African-American Theatre Comes to Life in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Back Gate Group performed James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner in front of a full house of multicultural theater lovers on Friday, August 31st. Housed in Chiang Mai’s AUA Language Center, the Gate Theater is northern Thailand’s first English-language theatre company. The Back Gate Group welcomes new acting talent, providing opportunities to participate in a professional stage production – no matter their age or level of acting experience.
James Baldwin was an African-American novelist and social critic whose works explored the cross-sections of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in segregated America in the mid-20th century. The Amen Corner is Baldwin’s first theatrical production written after his highly acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. A recurring theme in several of Baldwin’s works is his disillusionment with the African-American church after becoming a Pentecostal preacher at the young age of 14.
The play is set in a poor African-American church located in a Harlem storefront during the race-divided 1950’s. The story opens up with a soulful rendition of Amen, a familiar gospel song inviting the audience to clap and sing along as each character takes his place on stage. The audience meets female pastor, Margaret Alexander played by Kenda Rey, who gives the congregation a spirited sermon reminding them that the only way to righteousness is to serve the Lord. The pastor has led her congregation to believe that she came to live a life dedicated to religious piety after her husband Luke, played by Ra Harden, abandons her and her son for a worldly life on the road as a jazz musician. We then meet Ida Jackson (played by Jasmine Monee), a young woman whose baby is ill and fighting for his life. She finds her way to the altar one Sunday morning to ask the pastor to pray for her baby. The good pastor then chastises Ida and her husband for not living up to God’s word and then asks them to return together the following week.
The pastor’s story of piety and purity begins to unravel when we meet her son David (played by Antonio Polite), an 18 year old aspiring jazz musician struggling to be free of church ideals in favor of a life of his own design. Several elders in the congregation begin to question the life of the pastor after her long estranged husband, who is now quite ill, returns home to find out why she had indeed left him. Questions around her true persona and whether or not she is fit to lead the church start to circle the pastor. Her older sister Odessa (played by Seheri Swint) becomes her lone supporter.
The pastor’s reputation is slowly ripped apart as the chatter amongst the congregation continues to swell. The congregation is represented by the virtuous Sister Moore (played by Marci Hilili Akoma), and the brazen Sister Boxer and her husband, Brother Boxer (played by Cheryl McJoy and James Patton, respectively). The implications of the pastor’s newly revealed past problematises simplistic mores of good and evil, right and wrong. Much to their credit, the actors deliver on the nuance and complication of these age-old, yet ever relevant themes.
Amidst stirring lines and spirited delivery, the audience long forgets that the actors are reading from the text, a testament to the leadership of director Stephan B. Turner. The entire ensemble reflected the true creative spirit of the theater and should be congratulated on a job well done. I look forward to the next production.
Halona Black is a recent transplant to Chiang Mai from Orlando, FL. She is a professional ghostwriter and digital marketing expert who loves to teach healthy cooking classes and international travel.