James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner has been around for almost six decades now, but as I sat at the Guthrie on opening night listening to the show’s rousing gospel choir numbers and watching its central characters give spirited sermons from the pulpit, I couldn’t help but notice how many similarities there were to the majority of the entries in Tyler Perry’s rapidly growing oeuvre of faith-based films and plays centered largely around themes of morality and spirituality.
That’s not to say the quality of the writing is in any way similar (Amen clearly has the advantage, and not just because it doesn’t reek of coming directly off an unmanned assembly line), but it’s hard not to watch a story set almost entirely within a black church in 2012 without thinking of the man who’s built an entire empire around examining—and arguably, exploiting—issues and topics within the African-American religious community.
Despite the differences in faith (Amen is set in an Episcopal church in 1950s Harlem, while Perry’s settings are almost exclusively Southern Baptist), many of the raw ingredients are right there on paper—including but not limited to wayward sons, scheming church ladies, crises of faith, and do-wrong absentee husbands. There’s a pretty lethal brew of drama waiting to boil over with all these elements, and while Amen has no shortage of juicy plot twists and pithy monologues during its three-hour running time, there’s a moment somewhere right before the intermission break where the weight of Baldwin’s observations on race, gender, faith, and love all begin to really sink in. There are no white knights, Disney villains, or last-minute come-to-Jesus moments to be found in The Amen Corner. Instead, Baldwin’s work is much darker in tone and often unflinching in the way it speaks to racial isolation and the way religion manages to both guide and alienate relationships with its dogmatic rigidity.
Beginning with a leisurely but sneakily resonant bit of stage setting full of playground hand claps and piano tuning, director Lou Bellamy (of the much-honored Penumbra Theatre, presenting in partnership with the Guthrie) quickly establishes the play’s church as the lifeblood and touchstone of its characters. After a series of energetic gospel numbers (aided by the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church), we quickly become acquainted with Sister Margaret (a commanding and heartbreaking Greta Oglesby, returning to the Guthrie after her well-received star turn in 2009’s Caroline, or Change) and the various factors that are all competing with each other to test her faith and shake her resolve to its very core.
For starters, her standing as the church’s anointed pastor is under fire from the fiercely virginal Sister Moore (Austene Van, expertly hiding the flames of Hell beneath her gorgeously stern face) and Sister and Brother Boxer (Thomasina Petrus and Dennis W. Spears, bringing welcome boisterous comedic relief) each of whom resent her piousness and the brand new GE fridge that’s sitting in her kitchen.
There’s also the matter of her son’s (Eric Berryman) growing disillusionment with the church and interest in developing his skills as a jazz pianist, all of which is compounded by the sudden arrival of Margaret’s TB-infected estranged jazz musician husband (Hannibal Lokumbe), who forces Margaret to confront ghosts that have long been pushed aside for the sake of her own religious austerity.
It’s in the second act that the scenes between the core family members (also including Crystal Fox as Margaret’s quietly suffering sister Odessa, who’s able to offer rational guidance but never with enough kinetic force to incite real action) really begin to pop, as Baldwin’s language begins to slip from Sunday service potboiler into a forcefully swelling triumph of poetic rhetoric.
The action drags in places, the staging could have used a bit more texture, and despite uniformly solid singing voices from the cast, the music numbers rarely have time to build up enough momentum to really stick as well as they should. Still, Bellamy is able to temper the play’s melodrama with enough gut-wrenching performances and sneakily pessimistic observations about man’s fallibility under God to more than make up for the production’s relative shortcomings.
Baldwin’s work didn’t endure all these years just to be compared to a man who probably is even referring to himself as more of a businessman than an artist these days, but if anything, watching The Amen Corner in the age of Madea revealed how crucial Baldwin’s work remains today. There is hope and redemption to be found in The Amen Corner, but there are also no easy answers, and the audience is often asked to confront issues in faith with their own skepticism and doubt. Sixty years later, the themes in Baldwin’s work are still volatile and bursting with resonance. It’s enough to make you wish Tyler Perry had a cynical cousin out there somewhere.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.