Sunday, February 17, 2019

WOBT: "The Amen Corner"

There's a line of dialogue near the beginning of the vivid production of James Baldwin's 1954 play The Amen Corner, now showing at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville -- "Keep your own house in order" -- that signals a lot of the focus of the play, and impacts both its characters and anyone in the audience paying attention.

Set in an Evangelical storefront "corner" church and in the apartment of its determined preacher Sister Margaret [a stellar Crystal Mardis Johnson], Baldwin's first play and director Tara Fenn's remarkable production analyzes the hypocrisy of a religious zealot whose family life runs counter to the fundamentalist pronouncements she offers to her congregation.

In one of WOBT's strongest ensemble productions in recent memory, Ms. Fenn has gathered a fine group of neophyte and veteran actors to bring Baldwin's play to life: from the first moments of a rousing Gospel/Spiritual led by a dynamic Novelette Ward Seroyer as Sister Moore followed by an impassioned sermon by Ms. Johnson's Sister Margaret, we are brought into a place that feels so real that audiences are engaged immediately. -- Two other church stalwarts, Sister Boxer [Jasmine Simone Holland] and Brother Boxer [R. J. Johnson], and a complement of congregants enliven the proceedings of the church, and come with their own sets of issues.

There are jealousies and suspicions hinted at [Sister Margaret's tenure at the church was not a universal choice of the membership and her authoritarian behavior is questioned on occasion], but always disguised as being done in the service of the church. -- So when a new attendee -- Ida Jackson [Crystal Lee] -- asks for help for her sick baby and bitter husband, Sister Margaret at first advises her to leave her husband, and then only offers a seemingly perfunctory prayer, because she has been called away to help out a church in Philadelphia, and a "sacrifice" offering is collected to help pay her way there.

Margaret's son David [Luke Fenn] doesn't want to accompany his mother, and her estranged jazz musician husband Luke [Drey Wingate] shows up unexpectedly after ten years, and wants a reconciliation because he is close to death. -- Margaret had told everyone that Luke had deserted her and David, but the truth is revealed that she left him while grieving over the loss of her baby daughter in order to protect her son from his father's lifestyle. -- Caught in this lie, there will be consequences especially since David wants to follow in Luke's footsteps playing jazz music.

The repercussions during Margaret's absence come to a head as the church elders, led by the insinuating  Boxers, decide to oust Margaret and replace her with Sister Moore. [Everyone appears two-faced, behaving in the most anti-Christian ways while resorting to empty Biblical pronouncements.]

There is a touchingly truthful father-son scene between Mr. Wingate and Mr. Fenn where they connect on the most respectful of terms, and a frustratingly passionate one between Mr. Wingate and Ms. Johnson where their love for one another is still shown, but neither one can compromise their steadfast belief: the divide between his secular world and her spiritual one.

When an inconsolable Ida returns after the death of her baby [Ms. Lee is riveting in this scene], all Margaret can suggest is that she return home to grieve with her husband.

By the end, and though Margaret is widowed, left alone when David pursues a jazz career, and churchless, she learns that the best choices come from being honest and loving all people equally. -- Lessons we all could benefit from.