Students rehearse for the upcoming Theater Arts mainstage production of "The Amen Corner," performed by UC Santa Cruz's African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT).
Students rehearse for the upcoming Theater Arts mainstage production of “The Amen Corner,” performed by UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT). Photo by Jessica Tran.

James Baldwin’s classic play “The Amen Corner” is an investigation of poverty, religion and their effects on African American communities. It presents the story of Margaret Alexander, a church pastor in 1950s Harlem.

The African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) is kicking off their twenty-first season with “The Amen Corner” this weekend at UC Santa Cruz’s Mainstage. The play deals with topics of racial prejudice, sexism and many other issues still prevalent in today’s culture, said assistant director and theater arts major Alana Duvernay.

“We watch the struggles that happen in the African American household, as well as the roles that the church plays in African American life,” Duvernay said. “The play deals with things like family and love and culture, and we watch as [the family] develops a complex relationship with these issues.”

The AATAT is a student-run organization that came together in 1991, under the guidance of Don Williams, the director of the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center. According to its website, AATAT “was formed as a vehicle to create unity, higher visibility and understanding of the African American culture.” The organization is open to all students interested in this mission and it does not require any prerequisite knowledge or experience with acting or dramaturgy.

Williams, who is also the artistic director and producer of “The Amen Corner,” said the UCSC campus and community would benefit from seeing a realistic perspective of African American life. Through presenting this play, he hopes audiences will feel inspired to learn more about the spirit of gospel communities.

“Even if it’s not the faith that you believe in, it’s really about the connection, devotion and positivity that surrounds [gospel] communities,” Duvernay said. “[Don] Williams felt that it was perfect for … when we really just need to uplift each other and love each other and really make each other feel a part of the community.”

Williams helps bring a gospel-oriented play to campus every five years or so, attributing his interest in these plays to his experience working with students who have varying religious backgrounds.

Jessica Jones, AATAT president and member of three years, plays the character Sister Moore in “The Amen Corner.” Through creating and participating in a safe space where people feel comfortable, Jones wants everyone in the AATAT community to be themselves.

“I chose to become involved in this show because I wanted to reconvene with my AATAT family for another year and I wanted to continue to foster that sense of community that we’ve been sharing for 21 years now,” Jones said.

AATAT’s unique program has even been the driving force behind some students’ choice to attend UCSC.

“I’ve had a number of students who have chosen this school because it has an African American theater arts show, which is the only one of its kind in the whole UC system,” Williams said.

Members of AATAT also reach out to the broader Santa Cruz community by visiting high schools and afterschool programs to promote community outreach about their organization and to educate people about their many endeavors.

“I hope that students in the future take advantage of these opportunities and really get involved with productions like this,” Duvernay said. “Not only for their education as theater arts students, or students at this university, but also for the education that comes with being a part of this community. It has been a very beneficial process for all of us.”

The Amen Corner will be at UCSC’s Mainstage Feb. 22–24, the Stevenson Event Center March 1–2 and Seaside’s Oldemeyer Center March 9. UCSC students will receive one free ticket with a valid student ID.