If you’ve ever wanted a glimpse or reminder of what it feels like to be in church without actually attending church, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of James Baldwin‘s The Amen Corner is a great place to start. The play begins with a gospel music-driven Sunday morning service at Sister Margaret Alexander‘s church in Harlem, instantly immersing the audience in the atmosphere of the Black church as a riveting sermon and joyous chords rang through the theater. A woman walks in and asks for Sister Margaret to pray for her sick child. The entire congregation prays and blesses her with great fervor.
But behind the religiosity and community of the church, director Whitney White uses the play’s recurring moments of dread, backroom politics, and choreography to transform Sidney Harman Hall into a full realization of how organized religion, and specifically the Black church, actually functions.
The September performances of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner are more than a year in the making. The play’s original run, set for Feb. 11 through March 15, 2020, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s been a long, difficult road to return to live theater. The logistics are different: vaccination records are checked at the door and programs are now mobile-only, but the undeniable power and pathos of The Amen Corner have not lost any resonance. The performance also has deep local roots, with involvement from students, faculty, and alumni of Howard University, where it first premiered in 1955—several current students and alumni of the musical theater program are cast members.
The Amen Corner can be seen as a continuation of Baldwin’s classic 1953 novel Go Tell It On the Mountain, much of which centers around a semi-autobiographical retelling of Baldwin’s experiences in the church as a teenager and young preacher in Harlem. However, The Amen Corner takes a different turn by focusing on Sister Margaret, the pastor of a Pentecostal church, and her Job-esque struggle with her family, congregation, patriarchy, and societal inequality.
Mia Ellis‘ performance as Sister Margaret is exceptional as she navigates between embodying an imperious, God-anointed minister and a woman who has gone to hell and back. The opening scene sees Ellis play the quintessential firebrand preacher, reminding her parishioners about the dangers of alcohol, vice, and comic books. Surrounded by music and dancing, as well as the adulation of E. Faye Butler as Sister Moore and Deidra LaWan Starnes and Phil McGlaston as Sister and Brother Boxer, all appears to be well. She is supported by Roz White‘s Odessa, a stabilizing figure who lives with Margaret and handles the practical aspects of church administration.
In keeping with Baldwin’s vision, The Amen Corner focuses on stark dichotomies in the church. Once Sister Margaret’s estranged husband Luke (Chiké Johnson) arrives toting a cigarette and “infecting” their son David (Antonio Michael Woodard) with thoughts of secular pursuits, the play shows just how broken a church can become. Woodard’s portrayal of David hinges on breaking out of the church where he grew up and experiencing the outside world through playing music and partying with friends, which Woodard expresses brilliantly through an increasingly emotional and frustrated performance. Johnson’s performance also shines as he reflects on his role as a father and the struggle for Black America to thrive during the early 20th century.
White and choir director Nygel D. Robinson highlight the beautiful voices of the choir and the safety the church represents to its congregants. But Sister Margaret’s church is not safe from the racism and inequality of America, nor is it safe from the vagaries of the human condition. Most of the problems Margaret’s family and her parishioners face are not because of God’s will, but because they are poor and trapped in a racist system that condemns them to remain poor.
The entire play takes place in just three locations: the church, Sister Margaret’s apartment, and the bedroom where Luke stays. Scenic designer Daniel Soule‘s haunting buildings reveal another dichotomy between the apparent refuge of the church and the dismal environment of poor neighborhoods in 1940 and ’50s Harlem. With a cramped set of New York City apartment windows and fire escapes looming over the stage, it seems like the church is truly a place of greater safety. But as Sister Margaret’s life unravels, the play shows that behind the singing and joy, the unwavering cynicism and despair of the outside world is just under the surface.
As the complexities and tragedy pile up—Luke falls ill and begins to die in Margaret’s apartment; the baby Margaret prays for in the opening scene never recovers—the comfort church is supposed to provide becomes the prime source of discontent. The elders who appeared so nice now become cruel and moralizing antagonists. A particularly memorable scene features the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me;” as the choir sings during a moment of emotional pain, it goes from charming to creepy. Later on, the choir sings another gospel standard as Sister Margaret goes through an emotional crisis of faith. But the words are no longer joyful and exciting—they are unnerving and tinged with unease. The lighting of the apartment windows appropriately switches to a devilish red and black.
In the 67 years since Baldwin wrote The Amen Corner, the play has lost none of its sharpness or relevance. But it has long been underappreciated since its original performance at Howard University in 1955. Even as Baldwin’s reputation as a writer, activist, and scholar has grown, The Amen Corner is often overlooked. Thanks to Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Amen Corner has truly been brought back to life in the city where it first premiered.
At Sidney Harman Hall to Sept. 26. 610 F St. NW. $59–$120. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.