Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Baldwin was writing from his own experience: he grew up around Pentecostal religion in Harlem and was himself a preacher in his teens. The play is vast in scope, taking a clear-eyed look at both the consolation and the frustrations that come from following religious strictures that can isolate believers from the larger world.
Director Whitney White demonstrates her skill and subtlety working with a sizable cast on Daniel Soule's detail-packed set of Harlem in the 1950s, which fills the vast stage with a brick rear wall scattered with windows, an apartment bedroom and kitchen and, most important, the church upstairs where Pastor Margaret Alexander (Mia Ellis) leads a small but fervent congregation. Adam Honoré's lighting design brings out the nuances of the scenic design and sets moods, while the sound design by Broken Chord draws in the audience.
In her high-collared white robe (dead-on costumes by Andy Jean, both white for church and bright colors for off days), Margaret lays down the law for parishioners who consider her close to a saint. She is the single mother of David (Antonio Michael Woodard), now 18 and the church pianist, and lives with him and her sister Odessa (Harriett D. Foy). Things begin to change when Margaret's long-absent husband, a jazz trombonist named Luke (Chiké Johnson), arrives at her door and she is forced to admit to making choices she would not forgive in other people.
Ellis is a marvel as she demonstrates Margaret's belief in her own righteousness, her utter belief that her preaching is the only thing keeping her congregants from destruction, and what happens to certainty when it begins to crack. Johnson exemplifies resigned wisdom, Foy is a steadfast support, and E. Faye Butler is a delight as a parishioner who spreads gossip while proclaiming her purity.
Baldwin's script emphasizes the frenzy of worship in Margaret's church: spirituals and gospel hymns (most of them with lyrics he wrote, all with music composed or arranged by Victor Simonson) bring the characters out of their seats, dancing unrestrainedly and shaking tambourines. White has brought together some of the best singing actresses in Washington for this production, including Helen Hayes Award recipients Butler and Nova Y. Payton and nominees Foy and (current nominee) Jade Jones.
The Amen Corner runs through March 15, 2020, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
By James Baldwin
Members of the Congregation: