Shaw Festival: The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, directed by Kimberley Rampersad, Festival Theatre, June 20 to Oct. 1. Tickets here.
It has become de rigueur in these last couple of years for these big theatre festivals to feature a play of consequence by an acclaimed Black playwright.
While there are many plays pouring out of the Black community today that centre on contemporary issues, by going back to the Black classics, as it were, audiences are given a context to the Black experience. These plays by the Black pioneers of theatre contain the threads of the past that continue to impact Black lives today.
As a corollary effect, these large cast plays also provide lots of juicy roles for the excellent Black actors that this country is producing. And let’s be frank: it takes a big festival to mount a big play. If not Shaw and Stratford, then who?
James Baldwin (1924-1987) is one of the best-known Black writers to emerge in the explosive mid-50s of the last century. A Black activist, the very question of race relations sits at the very heart of his canon of work.
Baldwin grew up in dire poverty in Harlem. Encouraged by his mother about the importance of education, he applied for and was accepted into an excellent high school. After graduation, Baldwin took on menial jobs as he tried to establish his career as a writer.
Baldwin’s many novels and essays are mostly inspired by autobiographical details, particularly the inclusion of gay men caught in an identity crisis, set against the broader social and political upheavals of the times. His anti-heroes represent the marginalized. He also had a very strained relationship with his preacher-stepfather, and the impact of religion also figures in his writing.
Distraught by the treatment of Blacks in America, Baldwin first moved to France in 1948 where he ultimately spent most of his adult life. His most famous book, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), is listed among Time Magazine’s greatest 100 English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Play — Baldwin’s The Amen Corner
Among his vast literary output, Baldwin wrote only two plays, of which The Amen Corner (1954) was the first. As stated before, it contains many autobiographical allusions.
Unfortunately, while Baldwin pined to be a playwright, his forte lay in every other literary form, and quite frankly, the play is not particularly well-written. It rambles, it is repetitive, it is over-long and predictable, even simplistic, but nonetheless, it does manage to have some very strong moments, propelled by some dazzling performances, and stunning live gospel music.
The central figure, Sister Margaret Alexander (Janelle Cooper), is a preacher at a corner (storefront) Pentecostal church in Harlem. She lives with her son David (Andrew Broderick), a music school student, and her sympathetic sister Odessa (Alana Bridgewater).
We find out early on that she is having a struggle with David, who wants to become a professional jazz musician, which Sister Margaret sees as godless. She wants him to continue playing the piano for the choir and follow her as a preacher. When her long-estranged musician husband Luke (Allan Louis) returns home because he is dying, things start to unravel for Sister Margaret.
David is entranced by his father and his supposed glittering jazz career, while her congregation is horrified to learn that, rather than Luke abandoning his wife and child, it was Margaret who deserted him.
They see her religious convictions as being pure hypocrisy, because they were seeded in the ruins of her family. How can she possibly counsel her parishoners based on her besmirched past? A movement then begins to oust her as preacher, spearheaded by the holier-than-thou Sister Moore (Monica Parks). Even Margaret’s close hangers-on, Brother Boxer (David Alan Anderson) and his wife (Jenni Burke), ultimately desert the sinking ship.
Connecting the scenes together is the gospel choir, and the music is simply glorious. Kudos to Jeremiah Sparks who directed the choir in collaboration with Paul Sportelli. The divine nature of the music is in direct contrast to the ugliness taking place in both Sister Margaret’s family and her church. We also get doses of jazz music to introduce the profane into the mix.
The weight of religion overshadows the characters, which are cyphers in a way. It is an angry Baldwin saying that religion is keeping the Blacks down because they are waiting for their reward in the next life, when they should be fighting for dignity and justice in this life.
(And on a note of trivia — actor Marlon Brando gave Baldwin $75 to pay for his expenses, so he could write the play.)
The play has a very difficult set to configure. There has to be the church, and Sister Margaret’s home, including a kitchen and a bedroom for Luke.
The Amen Corner’s set designer, Anahita Dehbonehie, solved her problem by putting the church above the living quarters, with this two-story structure rotating to reveal the bedroom off the kitchen. This does, however, mean a lot of stairs for people to go up and down, using both the interior and exterior staircases, which is a bit distracting. A further rotation reveals the outside brick wall of the building, and a fire escape.
I am in utter awe of costume designer A.W. Nadine Grant’s 1950s look. Every one of the church women, and there are a lot of them, have a different suit or dress and a hat.
It fell to lighting designer Mikael Kangas to orchestrate this complicated set, which he did with dispatch.
Acting and Directing
As for the acting, it is a standout, and it is very hard to single out first among equals. In Amen, I point to Cooper, who does a great job going from confident to defeated, Bridgewater as the long-suffering Odessa, and Parks as the sharp-tongued religious vigilante.
As for direction, Amen’s Kimberly Rampersad found the right pacing, leisurely and assured, in order to let the drama sink in.
For her part, Rampersad also had the additional task of directing her cast up, down, and all around the stage. She also had to carefully time when to bring characters up the stairs to the church when other scenes are going on, not to mention leaving some characters sitting there in darkness. She tried to create a minimum of fuss, which she managed to mostly do.
In essence, The Amen Corner is a play about love. To Baldwin, love in all its manifestations, is the gateway to the soul.
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