Two plays from Black, queer playwrights are as relevant now as ever before
by Victor Simoes
The Williams Project, a Beacon Hill-based theater company that challenges the classic economic model of theater, prepares to open the 2022–2023 season centered around Black, queer writers with the first-ever production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner in Seattle.
“One thing we do that is different from most companies, particularly those our size, is we’re committed to paying a living wage to artists,” Ryan Guzzo Purcell, artistic director of The Williams Project, told the Emerald. “And so our sort of model is meant not just to support our artists, which we think is important, but also to sort of challenge other companies to think about their priorities so that they can really put their money where their mouth is and make artists get the support they deserve.”
The production of The Amen Corner is in partnership with LANGSTON, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to strengthening Black art production in Seattle. Based in Harlem, the play tells the story of pious Sister Margaret who, after people from her past reappear in her life, finds herself in danger and questioning her faith.
The Williams Project has had their sights set on The Amen Corner since 2017, after their production of Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. However, the size of the cast and their commitment to paying actors a living wage made for some delay — and then COVID brought everything to a halt.
“We’ve wanted to build this since 2017,” said Purcell, “and we’re really excited that it’s finally coming about”
The Amen Corner is notable for its all-Black cast and especially the character of Sister Margaret. “[She] is this amazing character coming to grips with, really, really big, universal human questions like: How do I keep my family safe? How do I deal with a crisis of faith? And usually in the American theater, historically, these sort of like big, weighty questions, the character voice in them has been a white man. It’s so brilliant to have a Black woman as sort of the everyman of the story, the person whose experience is one that we all have to go through in our way.”
Leading the cast is Dawn L. Troupe as Sister Margaret (A.R.T., CalShakes, and Joe’s Pub, among many others), Adrian Roberts as Luke (Broadway’s The Lion King, A.C.T. San Francisco, Magic Theatre), Dimitri Woods as David, and Dedra D. Woods as Odessa.
Baldwin’s adaptation will run Nov.2–20 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. For more information on ticket sales and play times, please visit The Williams Project webpage.
Later in the season, The Williams Project is preparing to present another classic by a Black, queer writer. This time a coproduction with Intiman theater of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
“I think Lorraine Hansberry actually has something really important to say about white liberals and sort of their role in perpetuating inequality and perpetuating American problems,” said Purcell. “She wrote this brilliant play about a group of Bohemian friends in Greenwich Village in the ʼ60s, really asking amazing questions about how we should live our values. How should we treat one another. This is a milestone by one of the great American playwrights, and it’s got a lot to say, especially to a ‘liberal’ city like Seattle.”
Directed by Purcell, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window will run Feb. 7–25, 2023, at the Erickson Theatre. For more information on ticket sales and play times, please visit The Williams Project webpage.
“I’m excited about combining the season as a whole,” said Purcell. “I think James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry are two masters, and it’s just fascinating that neither of these plays ever had a professional production in Seattle. So it’s really exciting to have these two major productions and to see what these brilliant writers were thinking about and writing about and talking about. I’m excited for that to be brought to light for Seattle this year.”
Victor Simoes is an international student at the University of Washington pursuing a double degree in journalism and photo/media. Originally from Florianópolis, Brazil, they enjoy radical organizing, hyper pop, and their beloved cats. Their writing focuses on community, arts, and culture. You can find them on Instagram or Twitter at @victorhaysser.
📸 Featured Image: Cast of the first professional production of “The Amen Corner” by James Baldwin in Seattle pose for a picture. (Photo: Bruce Clayton Tom, courtesy of The Williams Project)
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