Friday, January 20, 2012

Theater review: The Amen Corner

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 5:19 PM

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the pulpit at Temple Israel synagogue was turned over to an emissary from the St. Paul Baptist Church, Rev. Greg Moss. So our Saturday morning sermon was punctuated by a lusty volley of amens and — at Rev. Moss’s special request — a few spontaneous exclamations of “Shabbat shalom!” But that was hardly anything compared to what my wife Sue and I encountered that same evening at Duke Energy Theater, where On Q Productions is presenting The Amen Corner through January 28.

Plenty of amens can be heard in the opening scene at a corner Pentacostal Church, as playwright James Baldwin signals to us that he’s no less interested in immersing us in the spirit of this church’s worship than he is in telling the story of its anointed pastor, Sister Margaret. I had fully anticipated a baptism of amens as soon as I saw that half the stage in Nathanial Rorie’s aptly rickety set design had been devoted to the choir loft and pulpit, with ample space provided downstage for the congregation and meetings of the church elders. What surprised me was that there was no respite from the shower of amens when we adjourned to Sister Margaret’s kitchen. That’s where we learn about her domestic crises, past and present, and the oncoming turmoil in her church, where she will be called to battle if she wishes to maintain her leadership.

Since Sister Margaret’s apartment and the church are only separated by a staircase, there is steady traffic in the kitchen from the pillars of the congregation — and a steady stream of amens in their discourse. These come chiefly from the sternly virginal Sister Moore, who clearly wishes to snatch the pulpit from Margaret’s grasp, and her chief supporter, Sister Boxer, who carries a couple of personal grudges: the pastor has forbidden her husband to take a job driving a liquor truck, and she overtly envies Margaret’s marvelous new GE fridge. When these two loquacious malcontents speak, there are as many amens in their declarations as there are commas and periods.

Margaret’s son David plays a fairly hot piano for the choir, and his mom, naturally enough, sees him as her rightful successor. But there are no amens on his lips, a telltale sign from Baldwin, who found success as a boy preacher before he became an acclaimed man of letters. Sure enough, David has snuck off to hear his long-absent father play trombone at a jazz club, bolstering the reliability of Brother Boxer as the church gossip. Luke will follow not long afterwards, afflicted with TB and seeking to reconcile with Margaret, and David will learn that his pious mom has been lying to him all these years: it was she who abandoned her alcoholic husband for a sanctified Christian life rather than the other way around.

Now three acts are more than enough space for Baldwin to develop his two intertwining plots and the personalities involved. But with an ample songlist that bursts forth in each of those three acts, even amid conversations in the kitchen, pacing and depth can be problematical. Once the domestic crises are set forth, we get one extended shot each at defining the relationship between mother and son, husband and wife, and father and son. Likewise, the ethical controversy over the holiness of Margaret’s pastorship is a bit swift and superficial for a production that clocks in at a hefty 2:52 plus two ten-minute intermissions. Conversely, in Act 3, action seems to drag as Sister Margaret must ready herself to confront her church enemies while, at the other side of the stage, Sunday service is already in progress.

Ruth E. Sloane doesn’t push hard against the operatic ambiance of Baldwin’s script in directing Amen. Under the admirable musical direction of Quentin Bethea, a full choir parades down an aisle of the Duke onto the upstage loft, and they hold forth irresistibly — I was tapping both my feet — as we awaited Sister M’s first appearance. Terry Denise Henry inhabits those pure white robes ethereally as Margaret, perhaps a tad more appealing and likable than ideal but never because she’s mitigating the pastor’s stubborn faults as shepherd, mother, or wife. There could be more favoring toward her mic from the soundbooth than I heard at the Saturday night preview, but Henry’s vocals were strong and pure.

No, if this Margaret appeared overly bathed in righteous light, it was largely because Sloane had nudged her adversaries toward the dark. I can’t remember not loving a LeShea Stukes performance, and this one as Sister Moore is certainly no exception. Yet I suspect she has taken a self-righteous spinsterish busybody and turned her into an aspiring grand inquisitor, decked out in a regal white turban and glaring at everything in sight with gimlet eyes over her ever-present reading glasses. Just wonderful. I’m not as favorably disposed toward Briana Gibson’s puffed-cheek, pursed-lip pomposity as Sister Boxer, which looks particularly overdone as her point about driving a liquor truck gains credibility when weighed against her pastor’s misdeeds. A less overdone approach from Dominic Weaver as Brother Boxer would also be helpful, if only to add shock value to his encounter with Sister Margaret deep in Act 3.

On the other hand, I found all of Sister M’s kin to be pitch-perfect. Sheila Sherrod-Robinson makes the role of Aunt Odessa, Margaret’s sister, look deceptively easy and natural — always on the side of the angels in her urgings and disputes with Margaret or the church elders, always lacking the eloquence or charisma to convince anyone of anything. Predictably, Sultan Omar El-Amin captures the angst of David, as much driven to follow his jazz calling as his mother was driven to follow her sacred calling. If this is the last in El-Amin’s extensive gallery of troubled teen portrayals, a solemn wake should be convened. Most revelatory is the Charlotte stage debut of Melvin McCullough, a rasping hulk of dissipation and decrepitude from the moment he stumbles into Margaret’s kitchen as Luke. Here was a defiant, unapologetic earthiness that was a worthy match for Henry’s serene godliness. I not only believed McClullough’s drunkenness and terminal wheezing, I believed that if you handed him a trombone, he could play.

Baldwin provides one little cameo in the opening service that is especially artful: a young mother, Ida Jackson, comes to church carrying a sickly baby after losing her previous child, desperately supplicating Sister Margaret for help. Cradling the infant in her arms, the pastor’s prescription is absolutely consistent with the actions she has taken in her own life — foreshadowing the humbling lessons about love and family that Sister Margaret has yet to learn. Roshunda Anthony makes a fine debut as Ida, poignantly hammering home Sister M’s inadequacies.

Remarkably objective in its examination of the life he lived as a youngster, Baldwin’s Amen Corner offers a very full evening of rousing music, colorful characters, and meaningful conflicts. Shabbat shalom!

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