Shakespeare Theatre Company offers a taut, emotionally charged production of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” under the direction of Whitney White.
… a powerful, not-to-be-missed production of a great American work.
Baldwin’s true-to-life play approaches the messy interactions of faith and organized religion, love and family, and the question of where one’s greatest loyalty should lie through the lens of pastor Margaret Alexander’s interactions with her family and her church.
Anyone familiar with the traditional black church will feel that they are attending a live service during the opening sequence of the play, from Margaret’s rousing sermon, performed with sincerity and gusto by the stunning Mia Ellis, to the chorus of amen’ing parishioners – Brother Boxer (Phil McGlaston) being a particular favorite of mine with his hearty encouragements – to the testimony of church elder Sister Moore, played with great hilarity throughout the play by the divinely comedic E. Faye Butler.
Not to mention the top-notch gospel choir anthem, the accentuating piano accompaniment ramping up the sermon themes performed live by Margaret’s son David (Antonio Michael Woodard), the waving fans, the praise stepping, and the tambourines. It was hard to refrain from responding along with the congregation as the energy was so infectious!
The church choir performs a number of beautifully arranged spirituals at key moments throughout the play and the music tells as much of the story as the narrative and was in fact included in Baldwin’s script, highlighting the integral role that music has always played in the black community.
The immensely talented Nova Y. Payton, a treasure of the DC theatre scene who recently starred in “Newsies” (Medda Larkin) at Arena Stage and “Ragtime” (Sarah) at Ford’s Theatre, graces the choir with her shimmering soprano voice as the lead soloist in several numbers, but every soloist of the evening put on a gifted performance and the choir brought every bit of authenticity to the music that their roles demanded. Music Director Victor Simonson is to be commended for the high quality of each and every number.
Antonio Michael Woodard as David absolutely broke me with his vulnerability throughout the evening. He gave a shatteringly heart-wrenching performance as Margaret’s teenaged son who is torn between his desire to live in the secular world and his love for his mother. When David’s father Luke (Chiké Johnson) unexpectedly reappears after a ten-year absence, David finds himself even more conflicted.
Johnson delivers a powerful performance as a man dying of TB who is looking for one last chance at connection with his family and every nuanced emotion that he brought to the stage was perfectly realized yet completely natural. His continuing affection for his wife as well as his ongoing frustration with her was evident and his abounding love for his son shone out straight from his heart.
Mia Ellis as Margaret weaves the disparate storylines together as she fights so hard for righteousness but falters on her humanity. When her mask finally breaks, I felt such immense relief for her, despite the difficult circumstances that brought her to that moment. Ellis made her seeming defeat feel like an emotional victory, reminding me that brokenness can be as meaningful as joy.
Ellis is ably supported in the play by actor Harriett D. Foy who infuses her older sister Odessa with heartfelt strength and courage. Deidre LaWan Starnes as Sister Boxer offers up the counterpoint to Margaret’s holy walk as a woman forced to live in shades of gray in the world outside the church, seeking to maintain her faith while doing her best to earn a living and get by. It ends up being Sister Boxer who bears the brunt of Margaret’s uncompromising calls for sacrifice by her parishioners, which leads to the resentments that send Margaret’s world into a death spiral.
Jasmine M. Rush as Ida Jackson offers the final nail in Margaret’s unrepentant coffin of rigidity, playing a young woman with a desperately ill baby and an unchurched husband who seeks Margaret’s prayers and guidance. Margaret’s grim insistence on faith-based victories despite the harsh realities of life which conflict with her reassurances never feels more false than when Rush breaks down in their final confrontation, and Rush moved me deeply with her overwhelming portrayal of pain and defeat.
The set by Scenic Designer Daniel Soule was haunting and drew me into the story before the play even began. Each side of the stage was lined in shadowed brick tenement walls, from whose windows or balconies characters would occasionally perform. A large portion of the stage was carpeted in the garishly traditional shade of pink that many a church proudly sports and made those scenes feel so very believable. The vintage furniture in the apartment settings was equally inviting and the complete effect of the set was dynamic, mixing the gritty with the spiritual with the mundane.
I highly recommend “The Amen Corner,” directed by Whitney White with outstanding music direction by Victor Simonson, as a powerful, not-to-be-missed production of a great American work. James Baldwin’s beautiful play delivers a slice of life glimpse at the messiness of the human journey and offers rich food for thought about what it means to truly love.
Running Time: Two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission
Advisory: Adult themes
“The Amen Corner” at Shakespeare Theatre Company runs through March 15, 2020. For more information, click here.