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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Amen Corner

Faith is, for many people a kind of hiding place in which you won't be heard, in which you won't have to think about yourself and you haven't got to be responsible for your neighbor.
Chiké Johnson as Luke - photo credit: Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Hallelujah! The Shakespeare Theatre has put on its larger stage the rarely produced 1953 play The Amen Corner by novelist and preacher James Baldwin. In a way, it is a homecoming as the first production was in 1955 at Washington's African-American Howard University. The current production will surely inspire others. The title refers to the area nearest the pulpit where the most fervent and devout members of the congregation sit.

Scenic Designer Daniel Soule's set's very tall brick walls surround the epicenter of the 1950's Harlem community -- a church -- with, at its sides, a modest kitchen and bedroom. A choir -- and what a choir Music Director Victor Simonson has assembled -- sing rousing spirituals. It is those songs of faith that stir the audiences emotions, especially when Nova Y. Payton and Jade Jones perform their solos. There voices are truly miraculous.

The plot revolves around Sister Margaret Alexander who tries her hardest to hold her congregation and what's left of her family together. It's not easy as the Elders of the Church, holy-rollers every one, undermine her best efforts. She is surrounded by hypocrisy, most notably from the ambitious and duplicitous Sister Moore (E. Faye Butler in a star turn with plenty of humor.) The congregation take their seats when she says, "I'm not going to take much time."

Other Elders, The Boxers, Sister Boxer (Deidra LaWan Starnes) and her husband Brother Boxer (Phil McGlaston) , both performances are good, are perhaps the most venal characters. Their religiosity is really a power play to take over the church from the pastor, Margaret Alexander (Mia Ellis, in a strong but strangely unemotional performance. She is self-righteous to a fault.) The Boxers almost succeed. Margaret Alexander is lucky in that her older sister, Odessa (beautifully performed by Harriett D. Foy) tells it like it is. Her warnings lead Margaret Alexander to exert her standing with the community, brush aside the Elders, particularly the Boxers, and hold on to her pulpit.

Luke (Chiké Johnson), Margaret's estranged husband, returns from many years of being on the road as a trombonist. His heart-breaking performance as the musician who comes back to his erstwhile wife and son to die is the emotional center of this production. Johnson is superb.

We learn that Margaret Alexander, who having suffered a great tragedy and not caring for the jazz scene, left Luke. Their son David (Antonio Michael Woodard), Margaret's 18-year old son, and Margaret Alexander's congregation always thought that the situation was the other way around. David who wants to play in a jazz combo is thrilled to see his father again. First though he needs to break free from his over-protective mother. Their family triangle, filled with anger, sadness and ultimately remorse, is complicated.

Act Two begins with remarkably strong visual appeal. Lighting designer Adam Honoré has lit the windows that dot the Harlem tenements brick walls in a warm amber glow. The effect is memorable.

In our age of brevity with, indeed, many modern plays running 90 minutes without an intermission, The Amen Corner's two and three quarter hours is a very long evening. Director Whitney White and Music Director Victor Simonson are to be commended for moving the drama along but the fact is that while Act One went smoothly, Act Two drags as the dialogue and themes become repetitive. Nevertheless, it is a great pleasure to witness a remarkable play written by one of America's most gifted and important 20th-century writers.

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The Amen Corner
Directed by Whitney White
Music direction by Victor Simonson
Scenic design by Daniel Soule
Costume Design by Andy Jean
Lighting Design by Broken Chord
Cast: Mia Ellis (Margaret Alexander, pastor of the church); Harriett D. Foy (Odessa, Margaret's older sister); Jasmine M. Rush (Ida Jackson, a young woman); Antonio Michael Woodard (David, Margaret's 18-year-old son); Chiké Johnson (Luke, Margaret's husband); E. Faye Butler (Sister Moore); Deidra LaWan Starnes (Sister Boxer); Phil McGlaston (Brother Boxer); Lauryn Simone (Sister Sally); Nova Y. Payton (Sister Douglass); Jade Jones (Sister Rice); Marty Austin Lamar (Brother Davis/Choir Director); Tristan André Parks (Brother Washington); Francese, Jade Jones, Marty Austin Lamar, Nia-Aiyana Meeks, Tristan André Parks, Nova Y. Payton, Robert E. Person, Jasmine M. Rush, Theodore Sapp, Lauryn Simone (Choir).
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Shakespeare Theatre/Harman Hall,; Performances February 11 to March 15, 2020. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at February 18, 2020 performance.

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