BWW Review: All Praise THE AMEN CORNER at The Shakespeare Theatre
Homecomings are rarely this sweet or this long overdue.
In a city whose theatrical offerings are many, James Baldwin's The Amen Corner is something very special. A long forgotten play, nurtured at Howard University, has been dusted off, praise the lord, and given a spectacular production at the Shakespeare Theatre. A divine and introspective look at race, religion, and gender make what is on stage at Sidney Harman Hall something to be treasured.
Since religion is at the heart of The Amen Corner, I have a confession - I, probably like many, had never heard of this play before. Baldwin was a familiar author having written Go Tell It on the Mountain. But when it came to this play, he had largely been forgotten.
Even more tragically, because of that, Baldwin was never recognized in the same category as other African American Playwrights with whom he should be, namely Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Hopefully, this production will start to correct that mistake.
The Amen Corner is about a community church in Harlem set during the fifties. At the center is the pastor, Sister Margaret Alexander, whose faith is tested upon her husband's return from years of absence and the decision by their son to pursue a career in jazz. Further compounding Sister Margaret's trials and tribulations, her church elders have chosen this moment to rebel against their pastor after what they view as a double standard of behavior.
A commanding Mia Ellis plays Sister Margaret, delivering a career-defining performance. The story of a pastor whose absolutist ways irritate their flock is nothing new. Now, insert race, gender and socio-economic status into the picture and it is a different story. Ellis has to wrestle with a woman combating sexism and jealously among her congregation, a conflicted relationship with her husband, and a disappointment with her son, and she does all this masterfully.
The conflict in the play arises with the return of Sister Margaret's husband Luke, a weathered Chike Johnson. Luke is dying and hopes to use his illness as an opportunity to reconcile with not only his wife, but son David, a passionate Antonio Michael Woodard. The intersection between the desires of the two men is beautifully played out in a touching bedside conversation in Act 1. Baldwin uses the opportunity to reflect how Luke's faults have also given him great wisdom. This is not your typical returning derelict dad routine.
The return of Luke lets the long-smoldering feud between Sister Margaret and her church elders explode. A scene-stealing E. Faye Butler, in a role you will never forget, leads the way as Sister Moore. She's joined in her crusade by Brother and Sister Boxer, Phil McGlaston and Deidra LaWan Starnes. All have their reasons for disagreement, but where Baldwin shines is in the layers of disagreements.
Just when you think you've struck a nerve, something deeper, darker, and more sinful comes to light. Moments like these, especially in the thrilling second act, are what allows The Amen Corner to shine.
Harriett Foy is Odessa, Sister Margaret's sister, and the conscience of the play. A stirring embodiment of faith, Foy is a pillar of strength. She's underrated and overlooked at first, but by the play's finale, you see how she has the moral fiber of steel. Odessa, more than any other character, sees what's really going on and is not afraid to shine the light on it.
Religious hymns permeate the play; further establishing the character's identities while also commenting on the action onstage. Their presence throughout the play also helps to deepen our understanding of what religion means to the community, not just in terms of day to day, but how they also deal with the inequalities life has given them.
In lieu of a Greek chorus, Baldwin has "Members of the Congregation" who not only sing but play minor supporting parts. Among the stand outs is the always wonderful Nova Payton as Sister Douglass and a soulful Jade Jones as Sister Rice, under the excellent musical direction of Victor Simonson.
Daniel Soule's two-tiered set design effectively encapsulates all the arenas competing for Sister Margaret's attention. On one level is their cramped apartment kitchen and bedroom, where Luke lay terminally ill. Slightly above them is the church pulpit, with several steps connecting the two levels. Large gray tenement building exteriors tower over the set, a reminder that for some, religion is more than just a belief. It is a hope for a better life.
Under a lesser director, it is easy to see how various themes and identities of The Amen Corner could get lost. Baldwin wrote a complex play - complex not in that it is tough to understand, but rather that the play understands all the aspects that make life so tough. Whitney White's direction appears effortless in guiding these characters, and she never loses that personal touch. Every moment, and I mean every moment, is well executed.
When we hear the word epic applied to the theatre it is often in terms of length, special effects, or staging. The Amen Corner is epic, but in none of those terms. What makes this play a landmark is how Baldwin was able to encapsulate so many life experiences and then juxtapose them against the boundaries of religion.
He doesn't present religion in absolute terms, although Sister Margaret may see it that way. Instead, The Amen Corner shows the role faith can play when there is almost nowhere left to turn. This alone is a powerful statement about the American experience.
I must admit, I was surprised by the Shakespeare Theatre's selection of this play. Having seen it, the parallels to the great stories of the Bard are many, and Baldwin seems like a perfect fit for the company. Indeed, the justice the company has done to Shakespeare they have also done to Baldwin. All this is to say, The Amen Corner is a production to be praised.
Run time is two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
The Amen Corner runs thru March 15 at the Shakespeare Theatre - 610 F Street NW. Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, please click here.