You may feel like you’ve landed in a retro church service for the first 15 minutes of the sparkling new production of The Amen Corner from Shakespeare Theatre Company, what with the “praise Gods,” spirited hymn singing and Sunday-best hats on display. That’s because the play—a drama by mid-century African-American writer James Baldwin (with newly composed and adapted spiritual music interludes by Victor Simonson)—takes place in and around a Harlem street-corner church in the 1950s.
The focus is on Sister Margaret Alexander (Mia Ellis) and her Black congregation, as it grapples with what it means to be righteous. As the three-act play opens, we meet Margaret, white-robed and downright angelic, as she proselytizes about leading a holy life, insisting one parishioner forgo taking a job as a sinful liquor delivery truck driver, and recommending that another, with a sick child, trusts in prayer to heal him. Margaret is supported—and enthusiastically backed up – by an “amen corner” of devoted members, who hang on her words and advice. After the service, the church elders, who clearly adore her, come back to her apartment and fuss over her organ-playing teenage son David (Antonio Michael Woodard) and admire her new Frigidaire.
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But these righteous believers—particularly purist Sister Moore (played with equal parts humor and steely-eyed grit by E. Faye Butler)—are the first to cast doubts on Sister Margaret’s cred when her estranged husband (and David’s father), dissolute jazzman Luke (Chiké Johnson), shows up on her doorstep after a decade’s absence.
It’s to the cast’s credit, especially Ellis’ vibrant Margaret and Butler’s judging, strong-voiced Sister Moore, that what could be a polemic on religion versus humanity ends up being equal parts inspiring (wow, those spirituals and the dancing they cause!) and introspective (how can the African-American community remain cohesive?). Baldwin’s crisp dialogue (even in the slightly melodramatic denouement) makes a strong case that the community-building of African-American churches can be both a blessing and curse. The score, a mixture of traditional church music with new compositions, is ably delivered by cast-turned-choir members like Jade Jones, with her turbo-powered voice.
If there’s weakness here, it’s that the whole production could use a bit of a trim: the opening church service scene in particular. And there’s a strong tone change in the last act that might seem jarring to some, even as Ellis and Johnson ably delve into the nuances of their past relationship.
The Amen Corner closes March 15, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
It all takes place amid scenic designer Daniel Soule’s stunning, reimagined Harlem block. Towering brick walls pierced by apartment balconies and windows (utilized to subtle effect in several scenes) serve as the backdrop for a raised church floor and the simple rooms of Margaret’s apartment. Andy Jean’s costumes, a canny mix of church robes and vintage-seeming dresses and suits, emphasize how dressing the prim-and-proper part often stands in for truly moral behavior. It’s interesting to watch how Ellis’ Margaret morphs as her outfits do. In her pastor’s whites, she’s all fire, brimstone and clarity; in simple day frocks and a stunner of a bathrobe and turban, she’s a flesh-and-emotions woman with real-life issues.
Throughout, director Whitney White highlights the interplay of Baldwin’s clear, uncompromising words with the glorious religious music. Is Baldwin trying to nudge audiences toward accepting that morality and reality can peacefully coexist? Or is “The Amen Corner” a critique of how religion can both hurt and heal? Probably, it’s both things, and watching how it all plays out provides ample food for reflection, whether you’re a believer or not.
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. Directed by Whitney White. Music composed and arranged by Victor Simonson. Cast: Mia Ellis, Harriett D. Foy, Jasmine M. Rush, Antonio Michael Woodard, Chiké Johnson, E. Faye Butler, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Phil McGlaston, Lauryn Simone, Nova Y. Payton, Jade Jones, Marty Austin Lamar, Tristan André Parks, Francese, Nia-Aiyana Meeks, Theodore Sapp, Robert E. Person. Scenic designer: Daniel Soule; Costume designer: Andy Jean; Lighting designer: Adam Honoré; Sound design: Broken Chord; Composition Victor Simonson/Broken Chord; Fight choreographer and intimacy consultant: Cliff Williams III; Voice and dialect coach, Kim James Bey. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jennifer Barger.
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