James Baldwin was a prolific writer, but he didn’t pen a lot of plays (two to be exact — so one more than Beethoven’s single opera, for example). The one going on now until March 15 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, however, packs a wallop, enough for three or four shows.
The Amen Corner, brilliantly directed by Whitney White, explores a lot of the same themes as Baldwin’s debut novel Go Tell It On the Mountain, but with way more gospel singing. Set in a 50s Harlem church, it tells the story of Pastor Maggie Alexander (Mia Ellis starts strong and only gets better as the show goes on), who brooks no compromise with what she sees as the path of sin for her restive congregation, but whose own facade shows unexpected cracks when she has to deal with crises involving her estranged husband (Chiké Johnson can command a scene lying down) and wandering-eyed son (Antonio Michael Woodard provides a sensitive surrogate for Baldwin himself). Family vs. society, faith vs. self-actualization, jazz vs. hymns — there’s a lot to unpack here, and it is unpacked well.
In front of a towering set by Daniel Soule, underneath sparkling lights from Adam Honoré, and inside articulated costumes by Andy Jean, a small gaggle of believers, apostates, and church elders battle for souls and other prizes of power. Whenever you think things are getting heavy, they drop heavier, but whenever the tension gets unbearable, there’s a song break featuring a cast that doubles as a chorus. Among wall-to-wall great supporting performances, E. Faye Butler and Harriett D. Foy deserve particular shout-outs.
My theatre companion on opening night was brought to tears — when he wasn’t stomping along with the music so much that he kicked over his drink. The standing ovation at curtain call came in record time.
As anyone who’s ever served on or near a vestry knows, there’s nothing dirtier in this world than behind-the-scenes church politics. Imagine combining that with living in the same building as your sanctuary… yeesh.
Despite all the high-wrought drama, I didn’t see the ending coming and won’t be giving it away here. Like the rest of the show, it satisfies — but with sting.
Feature photo by Scott Suchman.