The cast of “The Amen Corner” took their audience to church on opening night with an interesting, but often disjointed, production of James Baldwin’s 1954 play, which centers around an African-American congregation and the demons they face. Directed by Art Gilliard, and mounted by his company Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, the production's actors, some stronger than others, tackled an emotionally complicated story.
Sister Margaret Alexander (Michele Powe) has been pastor of her church for 10 years when her estranged husband Luke (E. Dominique Henry) comes back, shaking up her life and that of her son David (Jordan Jones).
Powe gave a powerful performance, as did most of the cast. She was commanding and convincing in her sermons, but still showed vulnerability as her personal life unraveled. The church elders captured the best and worst characteristics of a congregation, from loyal family-like closeness, to petty gossip fueled by those who think being mean for Jesus will strengthen their chances for salvation.
There was a noticeable generation gap in the cast between middle-aged and teenage actors. Those who played the elders of the church performed comfortably, as if channeling their own experiences. The younger actors appeared unsure of themselves. While most of the congregation energetically chanted, stomped and threw their hands up, the few young people would just nod their heads along to some imaginary beat.
This production perhaps suffered from an overall lack of age-appropriate casting. David was supposed to be an 18-year-old rebellious musician, but the actor who played him was younger, with a mid-pubescent voice resembling Steve Urkel's, the young star of the TV show "Family Matters." Henry, who played his father Luke, actually fit the description of David better.
Still, the character dynamics and chemistry were enough to tell the story with the emotional thrust required. The cast illustrated in detail how church leaders face scrutiny, especially when those leaders are women.
This production interpreted Baldwin’s challenging play on a smaller scale than originally intended. For example, the set never changed, with half the stage serving as the church and the other half as Sister Margaret’s house, and roles were condensed.
“The Amen Corner” is a classic example of those without sin casting the first stone, but it ends without the satisfaction of the most malicious churchgoers recognizing their own faults. The story examines faith, heartbreak and how we choose to see ourselves and others.
“The Amen Corner” will be performed at The Footlight Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 8, and at 4 p.m. June 9, 10 and 11. For tickets go to piccolospoleto.com.
Reviewer Brianna Kirkham is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.