Kuumba Theatre

The dramatic works of James Baldwin are not easy to perform. He was a brilliant prose writer with an ear for the music of words, and his plays tend to be massively overwritten. Characters say the same things seven or eight times in language too splendid to consider editing (I recall one production of a Baldwin play that ran four hours on a good night). It is all too easy for a cast to collapse under the effort of sustaining the energy and intensity demanded by the virtually humorless Baldwin.

In The Amen Corner, this laborious task is compounded by the fact that the protagonist is a preacher. Our ears have been numbed to anything resembling the gospel by TV evangelists, and the comedians who lampoon them, so great care must be taken if the preacher is to be taken seriously.

Somehow Kuumba Theatre’s production of Baldwin’s The Amen Corner manages to overcome these hurdles. It’s still a long play–a little under three hours–but the energy level never wanes, the question of whether faith can withstand earthly suffering is always immediate, and it’s human enough to speak to all. This production has an epic sweep and grandeur that transcend time, place, and culture. Sister Margaret’s church could as easily be a business or social organization, and her story could be anyone’s.

The plot is simple enough: Sister Margaret has centered her life around the pastorship of a small church in Harlem. Though money is not plentiful, she has her religion, her teenage son, David, and a prestigious position in her community. But even as she asks her congregation, “Do you have your house in order?” and declares that “the Lord comes before all things,” a disruptive force is preparing to enter her life. Her ex-husband, Luke, comes home to die. His appearance triggers one repercussion after another: her son solidifies his plans to follow in his father’s secular footsteps–Luke’s a jazz musician–and jealous factions in her flock see her past as a tool to oust her as their leader. Under Luke’s relentless questioning, we learn that she turned to religion when she lost their first child: “I was looking for a hiding place,” she protests, “and there was no hiding place in you.” Luke replies, “You shouldn’t run away from the things that hurt you. Sometimes that’s all you got. I’ve seen people die because they were afraid of getting hurt.” As Sister Margaret struggles to preserve the stability she’s built, her faith is tested to the point of excruciation. Saying “amen,” which means “so be it,” becomes harder and harder for her.

Many of the actors from Kuumba’s 1978 production of the same play reprise their roles here. Most notable is Val Ward, founder of the company, as Sister Margaret. Her performance is a tour de force of strength and subtlety. Subtlety is not to be found in her adversaries, however, and rightly so–if we are to appreciate Sister Margaret’s agony, her tormentors must be severe indeed. Rhonda Ward’s Sister Boxer has a voice that would shatter glass, and Adisa Jahmu plays Brother Boxer with an oiliness that makes you want to set a match to him. Valerie D. Robinson steals the show as the hypocritical Sister Moore, delivering a performance so kinetic it’s just this side of spastic–lots and lots of movement, some of it directed but much of it as twitchy as Saint Vitus’s dance. Equally powerful is Erelah Spears as Sister Margaret’s chief advocate, Odessa; she radiates a quiet tensile strength that contrasts sharply with Robinson’s tornadolike devastation.

As the catalyst Luke, Sam Sanders has the thankless task of spending most of the play flat on his back, coughing and speaking in a gravel-throated rattle. That his extended demise never grows ridiculous is most laudable. McKinley Johnson as David, though he teeters on the edge of tears just a few too many times, admirably conveys the pain and indecision of a young man having to leave the security of home.

This production is well worth the journey to the near west side. With all the hucksters making use of religion nowadays, The Amen Corner is a welcome and convincing reminder that peace in one’s soul, whatever the source, is as difficult as it is necessary. Amen to that.