BWW Review: THE AMEN CORNER at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, written in 1954, addresses the role the church plays in a poverty-stricken African-American congregation and tackles the complexity of racial prejudice overshadowing this community of believers. Although this play is over 60 years old, its relevancy to today's world in which we live serves as a reminder that we need to join hands rather than point fingers.
The story takes place in a storefront ''corner'' church in Harlem pastored by a hell, fire and brimstone preacher, Margaret Alexander (Syreeta Banks). Margaret lives with her son David (Brian L. Boyd) and her sister Odessa (Yve Lyles). Before the congregants arrive, David sneaks into the church to play a jazz piece on the church piano. His mother would never permit that kind of music in her church. He darts off before everybody arrives. Soon the church choir is singing some awesome gospel songs that will get you going: "I Know A Man" and "Thank You Jesus, Thank You Lord". (I almost forgot myself and was about to go up for the alter call.) A young lady, Ida Jackson (Khadija Sallet) carrying her newborn asks for prayer. She already lost one baby and is afraid when baby Daniel became sick. Sister Margaret prays for the child but wants to know where the father is. You get the feeling she has had some personal experience with a Godless partner.
After delivering one of her holier-than-thou, impassioned Sunday morning sermons, Margaret and some of the choir members return to her apartment above the church. She soon receives an unexpected visit from her estranged husband, David's father, Luke (Joel P.E.King). As Luke starts talking about the past, everyone learns that Margaret left him and not the other way around, like she was telling it. She had to confess she left Luke, but only because he was playing his trombone in jazz clubs, drinking and chasing women. This sheds new light on Sister Margaret, who told one congregant to stop driving a liquor delivery truck as it would be better to be jobless and broke than be a part of promoting Satan's elixirs. She had placed herself high above everybody else and now her hypocritical side has caught the eye of her flock that want her to step down. They were already questioning how much it really costs to go to Philadelphia were Margaret was headed that day to speak to a sister church. Many in her own church were poor but gave in good faith. Could she be taking most of the tithes for herself? She is so stubborn in her politics of religion that Luke tells her "I wish you would leave God's work to the Lord". Under her religious nose, David was seen carousing with girls and smoking, per Brother Boxer (Patric Robinson). His wife, Sister Robinson (Ariel Blue) has also expressed her distain of Margaret's self-righteous attitude. There was a lot of murmuring amongst the congregation and they were ready to confront Margaret.
When Luke passes out from a coughing fit, he is made comfortable in a bedroom. It is there David and Luke get the chance to have a father-son chat about life. David wishes to follow in his father's footsteps and become a jazz musician. Luke encourages him with sound advice. David tells his mother he will be leaving the nest, a very tight nest, to pursue his dreams.
Margaret softens up to hold Luke just before he passes away. His last words were he loved her all this time and she should not have left him and broken up their family. It took losing her family, her church and the elder's trust in her for her to come to an understanding that she was using religion a shield: a way to disavow the day to day challenges she was facing.
Ms. Banks plays Margaret with all the vim and vigor of a pious religious leader. She is staunch and stubborn at first and then she allows her character to soften as she struggles with Luke's return, her congregation's upheaval and her son's quest for freedom.
Brian L. Boyd as David passionately played the part of a coming of age teen, ready to take on life on his own. You could feel his frustration with wanting to please his mother while at the same time remaining focused on his dreams. The father-son scene with Joel P.E. King was heartwarming and bittersweet.
Joel P.E. King was very convincing as Luke. His hacking attacks could take your breath away. His scene with his son and the final scene with Margaret were so real and touching.
Director Chuck Smith had his hands full with so much action going on and had his troupe ready for the highs and lows in which this play takes its audience.
The entire ensemble worked so well together. There was some fine acting, singing and preaching throughout this production.
The Amen Corner runs through March 3 at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. For more information on WBTT visit www.westcoastblacktheatre.org