Theater: Amen!

AlterTheater’s ‘The Amen Corner’ gives us no reason to mourn

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The congregation (Erica Smith) left, Tracy Camp center, Shani Harris-Bagwell far right) rejoices in song in AlterTheater's production of "The Amen Corner" by James Baldwin.

by Charles Brousse

When the quality of manufactured goods like kitchen appliances, clothing, furniture and other common items began to slip in the later decades of the 20th century as demand increased and production moved to low-wage countries, people here in the U.S. would wag their heads and say, “They don’t make ’em like they used ta’ anymore!” That phrase has been running around in my thoughts a lot lately as I’ve been disappointed by many of the recently written plays that are being presented on Bay Area stages. Being various and complex, the reasons for this apparent decline lie outside the boundaries of a routine production review, but the current revival of James Baldwin’s 1954 classic, The Amen Corner, by San Rafael’s AlterTheater, offers some intriguing clues.

Although Baldwin’s early work was admired by the literary cognoscenti, he never became an important force in American theater. That was partly because, born in 1924, he reached maturity as a writer in the mid 1950s, an era dominated by the giants of the previous decade, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, joined by their emerging heir, Edward Albee. But there were other compelling reasons. His dramatic output was slim: Besides 1954’s Amen Corner, Blues for Mister Charlie, a decade later, was his only other major play. At the same time, he was publishing a plethora of poems, novels and essays that undermined his public image, especially when their subjects—America’s lingering racism, the shabby treatment of homosexuals, religious hypocrisy and a distrust of power-seekers preaching ideological purity—were coupled with an activism that made The Establishment, white and black, politically right or left, very uncomfortable.

All of these themes coalesce in AlterTheater’s gripping production of The Amen Corner. It opens with Baldwin’s protagonist, the charismatic pastor Margaret (“Maggie”) Alexander (a luminous Cathleen Riddley) leading her evangelical flock in a stirring gospel chorus. In a subsequent homily, she recalls how, after her baby daughter died 15 or so years earlier, she concluded that she was being punished for living a life of sin with a philandering musician husband. Then she found Christ and has never deviated from the straight and narrow since.

Maggie’s emotional testimony is frequently interrupted by shouts of, “Amen!” followed by spontaneous dancing that concludes with hugs all around. It’s obviously a joyous occasion for everyone. Moments later, however, the first signs of discord appear, casting a shadow that will grow and darken as the drama progresses. One of the church’s influential elders, Sister Boxer (Shani Harris-Bagwell) is told that her husband, Brother Boxer (George P. Scott) will become impure if he increases their income by accepting an offer to drive a liquor dealer’s truck. When a young convert named Ida Jackson (Carla Pauli) asks the group to pray for her sick baby, she is counseled that her primary duty is to make sure that her skeptic husband gives his life to Jesus.

These incidents and Maggie’s constant assertions of her own piety gradually foment rebellion, particularly when she refuses to permanently condemn her former husband Luke (Chauncy Roberts) when, in the final stage of what appears to be TB, he returns to seek her help. Fueled by the ambition of Sister Moore (Tracy Camp), whose professions of purity are even more extreme than hers, her former supporters grow increasingly restless. The final blow comes with the revelation that Maggie and Luke’s son David (Rotimi Agbabiaka) is not only gay, but will be leaving the community to follow his father as a jazz musician. Despite the stalwart defense of her sister Odessa (Erica Smith), she is forced to make a series of agonizing choices that, ironically, may lead to her spiritual liberation.

AlterTheater’s acting ensemble, including those not mentioned here, is super; Riddley’s musical direction is a major contributor to the production’s success and Jeanette Harrison’s staging is impeccable. There’s no need to mourn theatrical decline when there’s a corner room deep in a San Rafael gym that offers an experience like this. To that I can only say, “Amen!”

Charles can be reached at cbrousse@att.net.

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