Even before the actors appear and the lights go down, you know The Amen Corner is going to be something special—scenic designer Vicki Smith’s set sees to that. Three scenes cohabitate the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust stage in this Penumbra Theatre production, which opened Friday night: a well-loved, worn-down Baptist church sanctuary; a church-basement apartment situated a few steps below the church; and, bookending this central scene, Harlem’s rough city streets. Smith’s set goes beyond creating a lifelike setting in which the action can take place. This is a world alive with purpose, embracing rather than shying away from its calling to unite and strengthen the people interacting with it. It is the physical representation of Sister Margaret Alexander’s spiritual mission—and playwright James Baldwin’s lifelong crusade to make people rethink their beliefs and priorities.
The Amen Corner follows the fall of Sister Margaret Alexander (Greta Oglesby) from beloved pastor to rejected sinner. The play is Baldwin’s first, and serves the same purpose as the prolific activist’s many novels: to give a voice to the African American population and illuminate the oppression facing them. Margaret is a single mother living with her sister, Odessa (Crystal Fox), and son, David (Eric Berryman), in the apartment beneath the church she pastors. Her congregation and son believe that Margaret’s husband, Luke (Hannibal Lokumbe), left her years earlier, choosing his career as a jazz trumpeter over his duties as husband and father. It’s only when Luke tracks Margaret down at church and reveals the truth—that it was Margaret who left Luke—as well as the fact that he’s dying, that Margaret’s life starts to unravel.
The cast assembled by Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy is as dynamic and insightful as the story they’ve been appointed to tell. Austene Van’s two-faced, passive-aggressive Sister Moore is chillingly convincing in her quest to unseat Sister Margaret. As Brother Boxer, Dennis Spears capitalizes on any and every chance to show off the vocal skills for which he is best known. Thomasina Petrus (Sister Boxer) steals the spotlight with her wide range of emotion and beautiful, powerful voice. Crystal Fox’s heartfelt portrayal of Odessa makes you wish you could lend her a hug—or an extra hand—as she bravely defends her sister’s honor.
But it’s Sister Margaret’s character that invites the most examination. Baldwin writes her in such a way that she changes drastically within the three-hour production—requiring the same of Oglesby. At first, it’s difficult to connect with both Oglesby and Margaret—a feeling shared, it seems, by the congregation. As the second act gets rolling, however, Oglesby (and Margaret) open up considerably, enabling the audience to feel and share in her grief and confusion as she grapples with her feelings for Luke, her sadness over her son’s waywardness, and the betrayal of her friends.
Whether this journey of disconnect-to-sympathy is intentional or not is unclear. What is certain is that the Margaret at the end of the play—the broken-yet-free Margaret—is much easier to embrace than the one seeking perfection at the expense of experiencing life.
This rollercoaster of energy and emotion is consistent throughout the play. The scenes with lengthy bouts of dialogue tend to drag, likely due to Baldwin’s unfamiliarity with writing for the stage and the actors’ unfamiliarity with the expansiveness of the Wurtele versus their more intimate Penumbra stage. Balancing the lulls, however, is the incredible music, courtesy of the actors (many of them trained vocalists) as well as the members of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, whose powerful voices and harmonies revitalize the action.
As is the case with any performance, these small lows will likely disappear by the end of the play’s run, leaving only the powerful piece of art that is The Amen Corner—a work that, although written 50 years ago, still resonates with today’s society.