While it may seem to be the year of Baldwin—James, not Alec—with the film adaptation of his If Beale Street Could Talk currently in movie theaters, the truth is we see very little of the late African-American writer’s work onstage. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is currently seeking to remedy that with its production of Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, a story that takes its roots from Baldwin’s own life.
The young James—awkward, small, black and gay in a time and place when the latter was pretty unthinkable—spent part of his teen years as a youth minister in a Harlem church. Certainly the attraction for that “calling” was largely theatrical in nature, not religious; from his own accounts, he was drawn by the power of the pulpit and the drama of it rather than by any true vocation.
That affinity shows in the opening scene of The Amen Corner, where pastor Margaret Alexander (Syreeta Banks) is preaching to the souls of her Harlem storefront congregation. Margaret is a fervent orator and, as spiced up here with some well-performed gospel music, her delivery to her small congregation is rousing for them and for us.
But Margaret’s beliefs in her God also include a certain amount of rigidity. She warns one church member, Brother Boxer (Patric Robinson), against driving a liquor truck, as the wages of sin; she advises a young woman (Khadija Sallet) with a sick baby to leave her non–churchgoing husband.
That sternness comes back to bite her when her ailing, long-lost husband Luke (Joel P.E. King) shows up. Everyone thought jazz musician Luke had left Margaret and their son, David (Brian L. Boyd), years ago, so she had their sympathy. When it turns out that she, in fact, left Luke, and when her faithful also learn that David is leaning toward following the path of his wayward father, there’s an uprising in the ranks that forces Margaret to examine her choices in life.
It’s not hard to see why The Amen Corner is seldom produced; it can feel dated, and it’s lengthy (more than 2 ½ hours with intermission) for audiences with a shorter attention span these days. But thanks to director Chuck Smith’s sure hand with the material and his cast, all of whom seem at their best in his care, The Amen Corner both entertains and touches.
It can be amusing to watch the members of Margaret’s church turn on her even as they clothe their actions in the words of the Lord, especially Sieglinda Fox as the elderly virgin Sister Moore, Robinson as the accusatory Brother Boxer, and Ariel Blue as his wife, all of them claiming to want only to do the right thing. Yve Lyles is strong as Margaret’s stalwart sister Odessa, the only one she can count on.
But the mood turns more emotional when Margaret faces what has happened in her personal life, as she and Luke recall their troubled past together while he lies ill in bed. King is effective throughout despite being confined to that bed through most of the show. And Boyd, as the once-dutiful son now trying to forge a life of his own, makes his big scene toward the end heart-wrenching.
Through it all, Banks is convincing as Margaret, whether she’s being demanding and in charge or, later, more vulnerable and human. You feel for her and her losses, and that alone would make The Amen Corner worth seeing.
The Amen Corner continues through March 3 at WBTT; for tickets, call 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.