Though the first scene jumps out at you in a big ensemble number with foot-stomping, hands-clapping, and Black Church testifying, make no mistake: playwright James Baldwin had a much deeper and darker intent in writing The Amen Corner. Just as the writer eloquently and with righteous anger confronted racism and white bigotry in so much of his life’s work, so in this early drama (1953) he turned his seething gaze inward on what he witnessed in his own community and leveled an indictment on the church, with all its backbiting, backstabbing politics and especially hypocrisy.
Director Whitney White seizes upon Baldwin’s intent and keeps the thrust of the story moving, even sacrificing big staging of musical numbers or fracturing them to melodic snatches of phrases so we never lose the dramatic thread. Thus we follow the life of Sister Margaret, how she starts out, seemingly in her element, filled with purpose and the Word, as she leads her “children” as she calls her congregation. We watch her “coming down,” pulled down by a growing rebellion in the ranks, whose members come to see her as someone all too human and lost to have set herself up in such a sanctified manner.
There is a second dramatic through-line following Sister Margaret’s son, the young man David, who struggles to find his own way, constantly coming up against his mother’s plans for him, tortured by having to protect her, lie to her, and driven by his love of jazz music and his desire to experience the world on his own terms. Played by Antonio Michael Woodard, he is a standout performance of the evening.
The set, brilliantly designed by Daniel Soule, defines the two worlds colliding in Baldwin’s drama, the inside world of a Black congregation church against the dark and oppressive backdrop of a tenement apartment block. Behind that char-grey wall, not only do you feel for the poor trapped inside these prison-like cells, but as faces peer out and down you understand how such neighbors become both spies and judges of human behavior. These walls remind us, if we need reminding, what a character says later on, “our only sin was being poor, Maggie.”
The rest of the stage represents both church and living quarters for the pastor and her family. Just as God, Son, and Holy Ghost create the tripartite church’s ever-present focus, so the three areas of action are defined by a tiny kitchen stage left dominated by a pistachio-green Frigidaire (symbol of the American dream and also debt-ridden society as it’s never fully paid for), a raised dais flanked by stairs center stage for church services, and stage right a narrow iron bed and small table creating a cramped bedroom. This becomes a room for the dead and dying, an image we are all too familiar with the last two years, and the symbol is all the more poignant for that.
Soon into the performance, a man drifts into the midst of the congregation. He presents a ravaged figure, half in the shadows, smoking a cigarette, and the congregation falls silent and still. What a theatrical moment both lighting designer Adam Honoré and actor Chiké Johnson achieve! For anyone like me not familiar with the play, Johnson’s entrance, not saying a word, is nonetheless loaded with suspense. He fulfills the trope of “stranger coming to town” to disrupt and be an agent of change. It’s a powerful characterization.
Johnson plays Luke, and it turns out he’s not a stranger at all but father to David and estranged husband to Sister Margaret. His subsequent collapse causes Margaret and the congregation to take him in and place him in the bed. But who will care for him? Sister Margaret grapples with the situation: should she do battle to win his soul or turn him over to God and get on with her work she feels called to do?
There are light moments in the evening. Surely the brightest is the force of nature that is E. Faye Butler. Butler is a bust-a-gut breath of fresh air in the drama. Sure, her Sister Moore is a backbiting, sanctimonious hypocrite, but you can’t help but recognize her and love her. She’s the voice in the congregation that cuts through all with deafening decibels. She’s saving herself for Jesus, she constantly assures everyone, but those electric hips when they get Jesus-juiced by the spirit go positively orgasmic. But watch more closely, Butler’s Sister Moore is no dumb clown; she’s sly as a fox. She’s on her way up and she has a plan.
White has deftly created a chain of moments of theatrical “grace” with her cast, clearly empowering them to go to hard and emotionally deep places. Mia Ellis is Sister Margaret, and her statuesque figure, robed or unrobed, and expressive hands move from being that towering community pillar then peeling away layer upon layer of built-up armor to show us a vulnerable, broken, and grieving woman inside.
There are other touching portraits and complex relationships, and White gives them due consideration and focus. Phil McGlaston and Deidra Lawan Starnes as Brother and Sister Boxer show us a couple struggling on the one hand to be good elders and support the church but at the same time locked in downward spiraling poverty, shame, and “shifty” nervousness because the work they can get doesn’t meet the strict moral standards of Sister Margaret against vice. (He’s offered an alcohol truck delivery and she has to serve trays of drinks.)
We first encounter Jasmine M. Rush as a young woman, Ida Jackson, entering the church in desperation, becoming unhinged as she watches her infant suffering in pain and wasting away. In another, she confronts Sister Margaret who hasn’t really listened and only tried to prescribe solutions to her problems.
The Amen Corner production has been seasoned well by this ensemble as it opened originally back in 2020 but then shut down soon after due to COVID. New to the show this round, though not to DC audiences, is Roz White in the role of Odessa, sister to Margaret. She gives one of the most nuanced and truthful performances of the evening. A lot of times Odessa is in the background, caring for her sick brother-in-law, having her sister’s back, and witnessing the plot to throw Margaret out. She stands up to the elders, not just confronting their treachery, but speaking from the heart to Sister Boxer and showing the feeling of personal hurt and betrayal of a fractured friendship as so often these church battles dredge up. When she starts a song, it’s from a place of feeling and sometimes we catch only a fleeting fragment — but more weight and truth in this than so much song-selling.
A quick shoutout to other local talents in the show, including Lola Akingbade, Shauna Lawrence, and Nia-Aiyana Meeks, all from Howard University (where, incidentally, the play had its first production in 1955). It’s always a pleasure to see homegrown talent brought onto DC’s big stages. Thanks also to Music Director Nygel D. Robinson and the entire choir who together do a good job in creating the colorful soundscape for the play — from rousing gospel (“I’m in His Care”) and bluesy soulfulness (“Soon I Will Be Done with the Trouble in the World”) to the pure tones of hymns like the simple “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.”
The theater seats 750, and it’s a darn sin there weren’t more seats filled. Strict protocols protecting patrons from COVID are enforced. This is one to see, and such a short run.
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
The Amen Corner plays September 14 to 26, 2021, at the Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or go online.
Whitney White on directing James Baldwin’s classic ‘The Amen Corner’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company interview by John Stoltenberg
James Baldwin’s ‘Amen Corner’ bears witness to the Beloved Community review by Ramona Harper