Stage Door Review
The Amen Corner
Thursday, August 24, 2023
by James Baldwin, directed by Kimberly Rampersad
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
August 19-October 8, 2023
David: “I’ve got my work to do, something’s happening in the world out there, I got to go!”
The Shaw Festival has pulled out all the stops to create a triumphant production of James Baldwin’s 1955 play The Amen Corner. This is the first play by a Black author ever to be staged in the Shaw Festival Theatre. Its combination of superbly acted personal drama with live gospel music and a spectacular set make this a must-see for a wide range of theatre-goers. While this is the first production of the play in Canada, the increasing number of productions in the US is a sign that audiences have come to realize what an important and powerful play this is.
The semi-autobiographical play takes place in Harlem in the 1950s. It is set in a corner evangelical church and in the apartment below where the Alexander family lives. Margaret Alexander is the pastor for the congregation that meets in the church above. She lives in the apartment with her 18-year-old son David, a musical prodigy who plays the piano at services, and her unmarried older sister Odessa. Margaret was chosen as the congregation’s pastor, replacing the previous one, because she told the group that she had had a vision when she had had a miscarriage and when her husband left her. Then she received the “call” that she was to do God’s work.
She is deeply respected and holds the congregation together through her charisma and through frequent references to her life story about overcoming misfortune to find enlightenment. Nevertheless, she does give out controversial advice. When a young woman asks Margaret to heal her sick baby, she advises her to leave her husband. She also advises Brother Boxer, one of church elders, not to take a job driving a liquor delivery van because he would be spreading temptation among his people. Even during the rousing church service that opens the play, it is evident that another of the elders, Sister Moore, is inclined to take over Margaret’s duties when not invited to.
The atmosphere in the church and in the Alexander household changes radically when Luke, Margaret’s husband whom she hasn’t seen for ten years, suddenly turns up on her doorstep. Though he doesn’t say so, it is clear that he is dying and has sought out Margaret to see her and David one last time.
The key information Luke reveals, ignorant of the impact it will have, is that He did not leave Margaret, as she has told everyone including David. Rather she left him because of his drinking and his unstable vocation as a jazz musician. For the church elders this comes as a shock. It means that she has lied to them all these years and that her life story, which she has made so central to her ministry, may also be untrue.
David is also shocked by Margaret’s lie even though she told it in order to protect him from the truth about his father. David now wants to find out Luke’s side of the story. Meanwhile, we find that David has also been lying to Margaret. He claims he is out late at night studying when in fact he and other music students at his school have been playing jazz together or listening to jazz downtown. Margaret’s goal for David had been that he would take over the pastorship of the church. David’s own goal is to become a jazz musician, which, in Margaret’s eyes, is taking the road to becoming a drunken failure like Luke.
Noting Luke’s drunkenness and David’s frequent absences late at night, Sister Moore opines that if Margaret can’t keep her own house in order, how can she rightly lead a church.
Baldwin’s depiction of Black church life is informed by direct experience. Baldwin was raised by a single mother in Harlem. There she married a labourer and Baptist preacher. Though Baldwin had the goal of becoming a writer, his attraction to other men caused him to throw himself into religion. He was particularly devoted to a female preacher, Bishop Rose Horn, who encouraged Baldwin to begin preaching when he was only 14. Ten years later in 1948 he had left his mother and siblings and moved to France where he hoped to find greater freedom – freedom to explore his sexuality, freedom from religion, freedom from racism and freedom to write. It is easy to view David’s desire to play jazz and to be with his friends as a parallel to Baldwin’s own desire to write and be with friends of the same orientation.
One of the unusual aspects of The Amen Corner is Baldwin’s exposure of hypocrisy within the Black community. The church elders are ready to accept a woman whose husband has abandoned his wife and son, but they are not ready to accept a woman who chose to take her child and leave her husband. The first case they view as a woman forced to make a life on her own. The second, however, they view as a woman who unsets the natural order for selfish reasons. Baldwin even has Brother Boxer say that women are meant to be ruled by their husbands.
The Shaw Festival has gathered a stellar cast for The Amen Corner and director Kimberly Rampersad has drawn powerful, nuanced performances from everyone. The performance that shines most brightly among these brilliant performances is that of Janelle Cooper as Margaret. This is an extraordinarily complex role that Cooper fully and passionately inhabits. Cooper details Margaret’s gradual shift from inspired to despairing with a difficult climb back to finding inspiration again. Cooper’s portrayal of Margaret’s relationship with Luke, especially in one scene where Margaret, almost in spite of herself, gives up her accumulated anger to find the love she once had is beautifully judged and exquisitely played. Cooper’s ability to depict conflicting emotions is peerless. Her achievement is simply breath-taking.
Allan Louis is also outstanding as Luke. After making a dashing first appearance, Luke soon falls ill, Louis making us realize that Luke had mustered all the strength he had to make a good first impression. Louis manages Luke’s two great dialogues with great sensitivity. In the first Luke tries to reconnect with David, the son he left behind. Luke has to go from making a rational argument for his disappearance to finding some common ground with a boy who is really a stranger. Louis manages to make Luke so sympathetic that we applaud every step of his success in getting to know David. Luke’s second great scene is with Margaret where, struggling against all the prejudice against him that she has built up over the years, he tries valiantly to make her recall that once they were in love. As in his conversation with Luke, Louis makes us believe in Luke’s sincerity and feel what devastation Luke will feel if he cannot succeed.
As Luke and Margaret’s son David, Andrew Broderick gives a truthful portrait of a young man profoundly confused by his father’s reappearance, a fact that makes him question all he previously knew about his life. Broderick shows how David through tentative steps eventually comes to view his father in a completely different light than Margaret had presented to him. Broderick splendidly conveys how difficult, yet how freeing, it is for him to realize that he has more in common with Luke than with his mother.
Odessa, Margaret’s older sister, is not directly involved in either of the play’s two plots – the first focussed on Margaret, the second focussed on David – yet she is deeply affected by them. Alana Bridgewater reveals Odessa as the rock that forms the firm foundation of the Alexander family. Margaret forces herself to be strong but expends all her energy in doing so. Odessa is strong and holds Margaret up when Margaret feels weak, especially when challenged by Luke’s arrival, David’s departure and the congregation’s rebellion. It is very difficult to portray wholly good characters, but Bridgewater lends Odessa such a fierce protective nature that we feel Margaret will be safe no matter what may happen.
We initially view the three main church elders as a comic trio until Baldwin uncovers the malice beneath their would-be kindly actions. Over the course of the action Monica Parks’s Sister Moore metamorphoses from meddling churchgoer who is overproud of her sexual purity to the merciless leader of the faction that wants to oust Margaret for her impurity. Parks manages Sister Moore’s transformation from foolish woman to tyrant with such finesse we can hardly believe it is happening. But that is exactly Baldwin’s point and one of the sources of his disillusionment with religion. He saw, as he uncovers in the play, how an outward demonstration of Christian faith can mask an entirely unchristian desire for power.
The married couple Brother Boxer and Sister Boxer at first seem merely like Sister Monica’s comic companions. Margaret’s telling Brother Boxer not to take the job delivering liquor, turns both against her, but hypocritically, the two do not use that excuse to turn against Margaret but Sister Moore’s harshly judgemental view of Margaret’s character. David Alan Anderson and Jenni Burke play these roles perfectly and only near the end reveal the malice that has lain beneath all their smiles and amens. None of these three elders seems to recall Jesus’s words in John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone”. What makes Sister Moore so dangerous is that she does believe she is without sin.
The action plays out on the fabulously detailed two-storey set of Anahita Dehbonehie that presents us with the entire corner of the building – church above, apartment below – with the fourth wall missing. The set is on a revolve so that when it turns we see the entire back wall of the building. Having the set make a 360º turn is a great effect which director Kimberley Rampersad sometimes uses to allow a costume change on set but also uses simply for effect rather than any narrative function.
The whole play is enlivened with gospel music from beginning to end. A six-member gospel choir directed by Jeremiah Sparks is joined by the eight elders and Margaret and Odessa to give the songs enormous impact. They music is full of energy and strength, but this just underscores the pain that David will have in leaving it behind and that Margaret will have in being excluded from it.
While this is the first time a play by a Black author has been staged in the Festival Theatre, let’s hope it is not the last. It is a magnificent production that definitely deserves a life beyond its run at the Shaw Festival. It’s a play and a production that should be seen across the country.
Photo: Janelle Cooper as Margaret Alexander; Janelle Cooper as Margaret, Andrew Broderick as David, Jenni Burke as Sister Boxer, David Alan Anderson as Brother Boxer, Allan Louis as Luke, Monica Parks as Sister Moore and Alana Bridgewater as Odessa; Allan Louis as Luke and Andrew Broderick as David; Alana Bridgewater as Odessa, Allan Louis as Luke (in bed) and Janelle Cooper as Margaret, with ensemble above. © 2023 David Cooper.
For tickets visit: www.shawfest.com