Smiles, Songs and Sadness Fill ‘The Amen Corner’

Above: Relationships get complicated by matters of life and death in the emotional and musical play “The Amen Corner.”  

 

Reviewed by Michael Morain

When a sick man stumbles into a church to visit his estranged wife, who happens to be the pastor, the flock of clucking church ladies suddenly goes silent. They freeze for just a second and then scatter out of his way.

Picture a fox in a henhouse and you can imagine the ruckus in James Baldwin’s 1954 play “The Amen Corner,” which Pyramid Theatre and director Ken-Matt Martin have resurrected in a lively new production at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater. The story takes place in a corner church in Harlem, but its gossipy black ladies look a whole lot like the gossipy white ones Grant Wood painted in “Daughters of Revolution”—fussy, vain and fully confident in their moral superiority. The ten-dollar word to describe them is Pecksniffian.

But in a church, as in a henhouse, matters of life and death often interrupt the usual squabbles about pecking order. In this case, the arrival of the dying jazz musician Luke (Aaron Smith) and his last-ditch efforts to win back Pastor Margaret (Tiffany Johnson) force the congregation to see their fiery leader in a different light. They start to wonder: What makes her so special, anyway? With all of her past demons, what gives her the right to tell them what to do?

Johnson brings to the role a polished sense of authority, from her opening sermon in the sanctuary—buoyed by a chorus of “Amens”—to the motherly lectures she aims at her squirrelly 18-year-old son (the rising star Antonio Woodard) in the apartment they share downstairs. On the clever split-level set (by Tom Lewis), she often speaks from the higher ground.

But Johnson can be vulnerable, too, especially with Smith, who is wily and charming even when he’s laid up in bed. These two actors paired off in a 2014 run of “Fences” and, again, her character falls for his despite her better judgment.

The rest of the cast fills out the congregation with style (in costumer Susanna Douthit’s white gloves and fancy hats) and gusto, and they capture the right rhythms of Pentecostal song and speech. Playing a backbiting busybody, Andrea Haynes’ elastic face stretches from piety to mischief faster than you can say “hallelujah,” and the marvelous Claudine Cheatem’s pursed lips speak volumes.

And, Lord, they can sing. Woodard and Haynes share a bluesy duet from opposite corners of the room—he on a balcony, she at the piano—and Ella Henderson belts out a stirring solo simply as a transition between scenes. Most of the music isn’t written into the script, but with the final chorus (borrowed from a different local church at each performance), there is enough good music to sell a cast recording.

The ending is abrupt. Baldwin, the son of a preacher, couldn’t resist the temptation to wrap things up in a tidy lesson—“to love the Lord is to love all his children”—but exactly how things shake out for the characters remains unclear. The “corner” in the title may have less to do with the church’s location than the life of its congregation, at a turning point toward an uncertain future.

Pyramid Theatre presents both “The Amen Corner” and “Mississippi…,” a new play about the next-door neighbors of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers who struggle in a tumultuous time, through Aug. 6 at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater. For show times and tickets, check desmoinesperformingarts.org. To read more about the shows and about Pyramid, read this story in the current issue of dsm

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