Shakespeare Theatre Company made a triumphant return to live theatre last week as “The Amen Corner” began the end of its original 2020 run. A musical rendition of James Baldwin’s 1953 production, “The Amen Corner” struck the perfect chord between soulful vocals and probing monologues. From the moment the lights went down in the historic Sidney Harman Hall, the audience was wrapped around lead actors Mia Ellis and Antonio Michael Woodard’s fingers.
“The Amen Corner” follows Pastor Margaret (Mia Ellis), a single mother with a complicated past, as she forcefully steers her congregation away from sin. Margaret’s ironclad will lands her on the wrong side of salvation and she is forced to reckon with a difficult question: whether she is enacting God’s will or her own.
While Margaret fights loud and proud against losing her position in the church, her son David (Antonio Michael Woodard) fights a quieter battle against his waning faith. His father Luke (Chiké Johnson)’s return after 10 long years further complicates the mother-son duo’s struggles.
Ellis’s most powerful moments on the stage are when she stands in contrast to her estranged husband Luke. It’s a real-life parable of the sinner and the saved — though who plays which role is not nearly as clear as it seems.
Director Whitney White’s production is gut-wrenching: a show of mere humanity in the face of divine emptiness. White manages to perfectly translate James Baldwin’s desperation, a person on the precipice of the void with no answers. And, like all of his work, “The Amen Corner” is a dramaturgy of Baldwin’s own painful experiences with race and class.
The set is wonderfully dynamic, multi-level and sparse enough to provide ample working space for the cast — without being so sparse to ask much of your imagination. It consists of tall, grey Harlem brick walls, a stray clothesline, a dusty church carpet and pulpit in one corner and a lone iron-rod bed in the other. Margaret’s cramped kitchen and dining room fill the far right end of the stage, an “Amen Corner” in its own respect. There, Sister Odessa (Roz White) fights Margaret’s losing battles from behind the scenes.
Sister Moore (E. Faye Butler) is a powerful comedic presence in the production, a church elder who proudly proclaims having never known the touch of a man while she saves herself for the Lord. Unnamed congregants make up the choir, with each vocalist an absolute powerhouse. The musical’s holy ambiance hinges on the choir, and they don’t disappoint.
Shakespeare Theatre Company produces a beautiful reckoning with God, fate and poverty. Each actor steps fully and fearlessly into their roles, with presences so large one can find it hard to breathe while watching. The experience is best understood through Antonio Michael Woodard’s closing remarks as he stood before a slowly falling curtain and bellowed joyously, “Welcome back to live theatre.”
“The Amen Corner” runs now through September 26, 2021 at Sidney Harman Hall. Doors open at 7 p.m. for 7:30 p.m. productions. Tickets range $49-$112 and can be purchased at the box office or at shakespearetheatre.org.
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