Sunday, September 15, 2002

The Amen Corner (Cleveland Play House)

'THE AMEN CORNER' well-conceived at Play House

When it opened on Broadway, terms used to describe James Baldwin’s THE AMEN CORNER included honest, wholly rich, profoundly poignant, vivid, and rich in humanity. These qualities all flow forth in director Chuck Patterson’s well-conceived production at the Cleveland Play House.

James Baldwin was the first of nine children of a clergyman and a factory worker. Born in 1924, he was brought up in New York’s Harlem and became a store front preacher at fourteen. Disillusioned with religion, and then the race relations in America, he moved to Paris and started to write. By the mid 1950’s he was well on his way to being the voice of Black America through novels, plays and essays. He returned to the US in 1960 and became politically active in support of civil rights. His play THE AMEN CORNER was first produced in 1955 at Howard University, the country’s foremost African American institution.

THE AMEN CORNER is based on places, events and people that Baldwin knew well. In fact, it is proposed by literature experts that the character of David is Baldwin’s alter-ego.

The story concerns a store-front Harlem church in the 1950s. The church is presided over by the strong-willed Sister Margaret who sets high standards for her parishioners as well as herself in her attempt to hide from the reality of her past and uncertainty of her present. When her former husband appears, her congregation turns skeptical, her 18-year old son plummets into an identity crisis, and Margaret is forced to deal with a host of personal demons.

The play, typical of 1950 scripts, is overly-long, consisting of three acts and two intermissions. Patterson does not allow the show to slide so the time goes quickly and the audience involvement is high.

Hopefully Elizabeth Van Dyke’s voice holds out through the run of the show. Though her characterization of Sister Margaret is clear and focused her projection is excessive through much of the performance. She is especially strong near the end of the show when she starts expressing meaning through changing line nuances rather than just shouting.

LaShawn Banks (David) has an appropriate undertow of torment throughout. His final speech seems to be Baldwin’s personal statement on who he needed to become and why he had to leave the culture he knew but questioned. When David states, “Maybe I could say something, say something in music,” it is the same statement Baldwin might have asked about his going out and creating literature.

Diane Weaver was capable of developing a vivid character by underplaying the role of Margaret’s older sister. She well showed how screaming can be over-shadowed by nuance.

RaSheryl McCreary (Sister Moore) is very effective as the holier-than-though virgin and conniving trouble-maker.

Cecelia Antoinette and Glenn Turner are strong as the husband and wife team who aid in the final fall of Sister Margaret.

The choral work and gospel presentations, under the musical direction of Marcella McElroy Caffie and Danny McElroy, are sensational. The renditions had the audience clapping and reacting throughout.

Technical aspects were outstanding. Felix Cochren’s two level set was practical and effective though the height of the second level sometimes caused the sound to get lost in the fly space. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes were era and purpose perfect. William Grant III’s lighting design was effective, especially considering he had to work with lighting a double level set which is very difficult.

Capsule Judgement: 'THE AMEN CORNER' is a play which is appropriate to the lives of all people, not just African Americans. Though it speaks with the Black voice, it asks the universal question of how we should live our lives, what we do when the world becomes too difficulty for us to face dead on, and how we react when reality hits. This is not a play about race or racial intolerance, it is a play making statements and asking questions about how to live one’s life.