James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner dates back to the mid-1950s, but its lessons — about faith, compassion, family, hypocrisy and more — are timeless.
The African American Performing Arts Community Theatre (AAPACT) and artistic director Teddy Harrell Jr. have put together a lively production of the play, enhancing it with the kind of roof-raising gospel music you’d hear in the storefront Harlem church where its main character preaches.
The production and the play itself are hardly flawless. It’s not always easy to hear every actor in the cavernous performance space at Liberty City’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, the talent levels of the actors vary and Baldwin’s lengthy script would doubtless be surgically streamlined if the playwright were crafting it today instead of nearly 60 years ago. Even so, there’s plenty to savor in AAPACT’s The Amen Corner.
The play centers around Sister Margaret (Brandiss Seward), the fiery leader of a by-the-Good-Book congregation. Inflexible in her interpretation of how the lessons of the Bible should apply to daily life, Sister Margaret doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment.
Brother Boxer (Lamar Hodges), she says, shouldn’t take a job driving a liquor delivery truck, even though he needs the work, because alcohol is evil. She advises Ida Jackson (Sarah Gracel), the mother of a gravely ill baby, to leave her husband since he won’t turn to God for help. Sister Margaret tells her 18-year-old son David (Jeffery Cason Jr.), the church’s pianist, that he needs to forget his dreams of becoming a professional musician and follow her into the pulpit.
There’s not much wiggle room in Sister Margaret’s world. But as it turns out, the preacher’s past isn’t quite as she has painted it.
Sister Margaret has earned much sympathy and admiration for raising David alone, telling everyone that her ex, a jazz trombonist named Luke (André L. Gainey), abandoned them. But when a dying Luke shows up to reconnect with his boy after 10 years of silence, Margaret’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart.
Director Harrell gets absorbing, layered performances from the best actors in his cast. Seward finds Margaret’s stern power but also conveys her doggedly repressed emotions as her life starts to crack. Janet “Toni” Mason is a supportive sidekick as the preacher’s sister Odessa. Gainey makes Luke a charmer, a physically weakened man who is stubbornly strong in his feelings for the woman who left him. As Brother Boxer and Sister Boxer, Hodges and his wife Regina are a formidable pair, evolving from dissatisfied parishioners into gossiping enemies. Carolyn Johnson is a comedic firecracker as Sister Moore, an older woman in cahoots with the Boxers. And Cason effectively conveys David’s tension as he’s torn between obedience and forging his own path in life.
AAPACT’s The Amen Corner would connect more easily with its attentive audiences if the actors used microphones, if Dudley Pinder’s three-section set allowed for easier movement between the spaces and if theatergoers’ sightlines weren’t sometimes blocked by those sitting in front of them. Yet given Baldwin’s themes and the enduring qualities of human nature, for better and for worse, connect it does.