BWW Review: THE AMEN CORNER at Pyramid Theatre Company
Redemption is on the mind in Pyramid Theatre Company's The Amen Corner, the classic James Baldwin show that completes Pyramid's summer season. Baldwin's play often rests on questions concerning redemption, sacrifice, and spirituality making the show a fitting choice for Pyramid after two successful seasons in Des Moines. While this production is able to bring spirit and liveliness through its passionate performances, often times the delivery gets lost in Baldwin's layered script and comes across as plain confusing.
It should come as no surprise that Baldwin's script is dense and layered, as many of Baldwin's most famous essays wind and bend to cover topics of racial, sexual, and class discrimination in the United States. The Amen Corner covers all of the aforementioned topics and centers on the fall of church pastor Sister Margaret (Tiffany Johnson) after her long absent and very sick husband Luke (AaRon Smith) shows up in the church after a Sunday morning service. Margaret had been raising their son David (Antonio Woodard) the "right" way in the church away from Luke's seemingly sinful ways. As more information comes forward regarding the specifics of Margaret and Luke's relationship, the other church members gossip and Margaret's sister Odessa (Claudine Cheatem) defends her sister until the end.
There are many fine performances throughout the production. Tiffany Johnson, returning to Pyramid after her renowned performance in Fences, gives Margaret an excellent strength and intensity that commands the audience especially at the top of the show during her fiery sermon. Claudine Cheatem as her sister Odessa at times seems like the only sensible character on stage as she fights off the gossiping church ladies who are coming for Margaret's job. Cheatem's empowered Odessa is a highlight of the show when she is scolding others or just watching the corruption in darkness from a rocking chair.
It also seems that the corruption the church members try to expose throughout the show never seems as big of a threat as they make it out to be. 'Andrea Haynes as the comically wicked church lady Sister Moore starts off as a hilarious spiritual show-off who is often yelling at the audience to pray and lauding her own choices. Haynes' loud and angry performance of Sister Moore slowly becomes too much as the piece begins to focus on the severe fall of grace of Margaret who is still deeply in love with her husband she left years ago. As the husband, AaRon Smith delivers his poignant monologues with ease and brings some human reality to a show that often depends upon the audience already being sold on religious redemption. Also notable is Antonio Woodard as Margaret's son, who slowly retreats from his religious upbringing as he talks with his father. A standout moment of the show is when the father and son talk about living and enjoYing Life in the basement of the church. It was in this moment that I began to see the light out of Baldwin's dense story.
Yet, after the high energy and tension of the first act leave, the flaws of The Amen Corner slowly start peeking through the cracks. There are only so many times an audience member can watch church members try to plot against Margaret while Odessa refutes. Cheatem handles these moments well to make each rebuttal fresh, but these parts of the show could use some tightening. There are also only so many times an audience member can watch dramatic monologues and breakdowns by Johnson who, even at the end of the show, left me confused as to why she was so set on converting her husband and son.
The ending of the show may be the most confusing moment of all, as director Ken-Matt-Martin cannot seem to decide whether to end the piece comically or dramatically. Martin has added many fantastic songs to the show that lift the piece and showcase the phenomenal voices of the cast, which deserve much praise and recognition. There were many moments where I found goosebumps covering my arms when a song would begin at a perfect moment in the show. Yet, the placement of a song right after the climax received a both comic and dramatic interpretation that left a confused response among the audience. Shortly after, the house lights come on while there is still a portion of the show left allowing cast members to preach directly at you and see you. While in theory this idea makes sense, there were many uncomfortable audience members who would prefer not to be yelled at after the almost two hour show.
Overall, The Amen Corner has some moments of pure joy and intensity that transport the audience to the little corner church where corruption and redemption are battling it out for souls. It also has some moments of confusion where Baldwin's script beats out its performers in a production that can't lock into some of the complex layers. While maybe not as enjoyable as Pyramid's previous offerings or other summer show Mississippi Goddamn, I agree with Ken-Matt Martin's directors note on Pyramid Theatre Company stating, "God isn't finished with us yet. He's just getting started."
The Amen Corner
Pyramid Theatre Company
July 21 - August 6