At the heart of great American theatre, nothing hits home quite as hard as tragedy revolving around American ideals. James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner explores themes of faith, religion, and accountability within the Black American community and is an under sung staple in classic American theatre
Published in 1954, The Amen Corner tells the story of Pastor Margaret Alexander. After delivering a fiery and controversial Sunday sermon, Margaret’s estranged husband reappears into her life, setting off a chain of events that threaten her position in her church and relationships with her son and congregation. The Amen Corner is an insightful, angry, and tragic play that has aged gracefully into a period piece with timely themes of trauma, love, regret, and, of course, faith.
Directed by Candice Handy, the start of the show sets the tone for the evening. The opening transports the audience to lively, musical, and raucous Harlem church, led by the palpably powerful Torie Wiggins as Pastor Margaret. Wiggins is strong, vulnerable, and raw throughout the evening, portraying a devastating fall from grace due to past sins and current flaws. Her performance carries the show.
Scenic designer Samantha Reno’s set displays the juxtaposition at the core of the show; the upper layer shows a humble yet fervent chapel for the worshipers to celebrate, the lower level a humble living quarters where the kitchen-sink drama simmers to a boil. There is an intimacy with this set, a familiarity that moves beyond the time period; A small corner church and apartment we have all been to, whether that be for Sunday school, worship service, or other local community event. Lighting designer Jessica Drayton guides the audience’s collective eye across the large stage plot, as several (often simultaneous) dramatic moments come to light throughout the show.
Costume designer Kendra Johnson has put together several beautiful outfits, particularly the effervescent robes for the choir and pastor, while also contrasting the poverty portrayed outside of the church, particularly with Luke and David’s period streetwear.
The cast is cohesive and essential. No matter the number of lines, every character has a distinct personality on stage and adds to the sense of cantankerous community vital for the core of the production. I can’t think of a single extraneous character in the production. Brother and Sister Boxer (Kenneth Early and Kyndra Dyanne Jefferies) are the perfect catalyst for Pastor Margaret’s fall, acting as a suddenly offended and subsequently disillusioned church-going couple. Burgess C. Byrd is hilarious and subtly sinister as the church busybody Sister Moore, giving Torie Wiggins’ Pastor Margaret an equally strong and outspoken opponent to contend with.
The show is haunted by convincingly sung spiritual numbers, which evolve throughout the show from joyful to ironic to tragic. The musicality seeps into the dialogue. Pastor Margaret sings parts of her sermon. “ranny’s” Luke moves from talking to his son to nearly jumping into jazz-idiomatic spoken beat-poetry. Excellent Music Direction/Composition is by Yemi Oyediran.
While the script alone is timeless, the cast brings so much life to these characters. The rhythm of their interpretation gives so much music to the words. Each monologue is a sermon in its own right, whether it is David’s (Adrian DeVaughn Summers) loss of faith, Luke’s (“ranney”) desire for connection, or Pastor Margaret’s condemnation of perceived sin.
The three-act show runs about 2 hours and 50 minutes. Despite the length, the acts fly by. By the time you get settled into your seat and the drama begins to move to a boil, intermission has arrived. The pacing of the show is gripping, with the audience occasionally on the edge of their seat as it builds towards the inevitable conclusion. The third act finale does linger a little longer than one might see necessary, due to staging direction and script requirements. Nevertheless, the journey is ultimately rewarding and thought-provoking.
Tickets to The Amen Corner
So, if classic American theatre of the sublime nature is what you are looking for, The Amen Corner has a sermon you need to hear. Running now through February 11th, tickets can be purchased here.