by CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner (directed by Penumbra Theater’s Lou Bellamy) tackles faith, poverty, racism and sexism in a superbly acted ensemble performance at the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage through June 17. The beautifully rendered 1950s Harlem neighborhood set comes alive immediately upon entering the theater, with assorted street characters wandering on and off stage throughout the audience seating. Even these minor characters help to create the realistic feel of the New York City neighborhood dominated by the local church and threatened by the chaos of poverty, crime and human suffering.
The performance opens with a rousing, foot-stomping service led by Sister Margaret Alexander (Greta Oglesby), who infuses her character with the gravitas of a woman struggling to lead a church and raise a son with wisdom and unshakable faith, while internal and external forces conspire against her. The son, David, (Eric Berryman), leads a double life, playing the church piano during services while exploring his musical talents in realms beyond his mother’s influence.
Meanwhile, Sister Margaret’s long-estranged and terminally ill jazz-musician husband Luke (Hannibal Lokumbe, who gives his character a world-weary, knowing hipness) returns home, bringing turmoil to his family and the tight-knit church community. Penumbra’s company of actors play their characters with an intense realism, passion, honesty and respect; including the church congregants and Sister Margaret’s long-suffering but supportive sister, Odessa (Crystal Fox). One senses that these are familiar and well-loved characters. James Baldwin gives even the hypocritical and conspiring church elders, Sisters Moore and Boxer and Brother Boxer (Austene Van, Thomasina Petrus and Dennis W. Spears) a relatable humanity. Are they power-grabbing, evil back-stabbers or are they misguided in the passion of their beliefs? How do you save a community and family from crushing poverty and racism while facing daily the temptations of the streets? Ultimately, Sister Margaret explores her own inner demons in order to save herself, her family and the church family for which she sacrificed everything.
The lead actors, ensemble players and choir members deserve special mention for their amazing vocal talents and roof-raising musical numbers. Under the musical direction of Sanford Moore, the 10-member gospel choir from Minneapolis’ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church had the opening-night audience leaping to their feet with applause several times during the performance.
This joint production of the Penumbra and the Guthrie Theatre continues a three-year partnership that has brought Penumbra works to the Guthrie’s stage. As a prolific civil rights writer and activist, James Baldwin was committed to exposing racist violence and hypocrisy. I wondered while watching The Amen Corner what Baldwin might have written about the recent controversy over diversity in Guthrie’s upcoming program season. I left the theater convinced that ongoing partnerships such as these with the Penumbra Theater Company and its stellar, transformative productions are important factors to consider as debates about diversity at the Guthrie continue.
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. Penumbra Theatre Company at the Guthrie Theater. 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. May 5-June 17, 2012. Guthrie Box Office: 612.377.2224, toll-free 877.44.STAGE, 612.225.6244 (Group Sales) and online at www.guthrietheater.org. Tickets also available through Penumbra at http://penumbratheatre.org/.