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The Amen Corner
a Drama
by James Baldwin

COMPANY : True Colors Theatre Company
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3058

SHOWING : July 16, 2008 - August 03, 2008



Sister Margaret's sins are coming home to roost. She is the pastor of a Harlem Storefront Church, and has been a single mother for most of her adult life. Now her ex-husband has come home to die. And her parishioners don't like it.

A Gospel Choir provides musical counterpoint to this classic play about love, family, and what it means to love God.

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Hiding Behind God
by Dedalus
Thursday, July 31, 2008
James Baldwin wrote “The Amen Corner” in the mid-fifties (it wasn’t produced until 1965 or so) as a reaction to the fervent Pentecostal Christianity found in insular black communities. Rather than being a cynical skeptic’s look at religion, it was an honest examination of the blinders religion can put on people, and the gentle epiphanies that can come when harsh realities strip away those blinders.

Now, as part of this year’s Black Arts Festival, True Colors is staging the show at the Alliance’s Woodruff Arts Center, promoting it as if it were a celebration of Christianity in the Black Experience. It’s a bit of a disconnect, but, after a disappointing first act (taken down by one of the worst performances I’ve seen by an actor in recent years), Baldwin’s ambivalence comes to the fore, and the play takes on a new life.

Sister Margaret Alexander (a luminous Denise Burse) is the pastor of a storefront church, below which she lives with her son and sister. She is a strong a moral focus for her congregation, constantly admonishing her parishioners that they must love God before all else, even family. Into her world staggers her estranged husband Luke, dissipated and dying of tuberculosis. His arrival precipitates a crisis in her church and in her house, leading her to a re-examination of her life and her definition of what it means to “love God.”

The first thing that struck me about this play was the utter hypocrisy of the elders in her church. Constantly praising God, and crying “Amen,” they are nevertheless the worst kind of gossips, judging each other based on the flimsiest of rumors, thinking everyone (including lifelong friends) is motivated by the basest impulses and the dominance of sin. Despite the religious patina of their lives, theirs is a world dominated by sin and Satan, with God being only a mysterious savior behind whose robes they constantly hide in fear. Theirs is a religion of fear, not of love.

Sister Margaret, too, is a cold and distant woman, keeping any love from cracking her air of authority and Godliness, unwilling to let the slightest human failing (or feeling) get behind her coat of armour. These people are the living embodiment of the “plank in your eye” lesson on Judgment given by Jesus. And yet, they consider any actions taken in response to these quick (and often erroneous) judgments as “doing God’s work.” The irony is both beautiful and cruel.

It is only when Sister Margaret loses her husband, her son, and her church, that she is able to see the plank in her own eye, and to see the harm her unyielding faith has done to her, her family, and her life. And yet, it is her acknowledgement of this that leads to the final, gentle moment. Her defense to her congregation is not an angry denunciation, a strong self-defense, or tearful grief. It is an embrace of everyone, even those who have wronged her.

Unfortunately, what almost kills this play completely is the performance of Thomas Byrd as Sister Margaret’s dying husband Luke. Mr. Byrd has a long and impressive bio, including a Tony nomination and numerous Film and TV roles. Yet here, he stumbles over lines, has the pace of snail, and gives every word equal and monotonous volume and pitch and weight. It is a performance without subtext, a recital without emotion. Near the end of Act I, he has a seemingly endless monologue about music and love that needs to strike out from the heart of a dying man to his listening son. Instead, it is given the steady monotony of a metronome, lasting twice as long as it should, filled with silences while we wait for Mr. Byrd to remember his lines. It is not the measured cadence of a character dying, but the struggle of an actor past his prime. It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment (or should be). That Mr. Byrd spends most of Act II lying silently in his bed is one of the main reasons the second half works so much better than the first.

The set is also rather curious. It looks very nice with two levels showing us the apartment downstairs and the storefront church above it. But, by showing as a staircase between the two, with free transit from one level to another, an implication is made that it is a unit set. But, that would mean there is a hallwayed entrance to the apartment directly below a sidewalk overhead. This doesn’t exactly make sense. But to be honest, it is something I only noticed while waiting for Mr. Byrd to struggle through another scene, so it may be one of those design things that would normally survive the Disbelief Filter. And, like I said, it does look good!

Since the play’s attitudes towards women and race is decidedly dated, it was a wise decision to keep it set in the sixties. There were moments of wry humor and cruel revelation. The gospel choir was energetic and lovely to listen to, and the supporting performances were wise and compelling.

So, the final irony is, Mr. Baldwin constructed a play that starts out be critical of the Black Pentecostal church. Yet he couldn’t help but create a main character who discovers the true meaning of love and acceptance and tearing down the blinders of quick judgments. In doing so, he may be creating a stronger celebration of Christianity than a straightforward Gospel musical could have done. And for a skeptic like me to recognize that is an achievement not to be overlooked.

Not to belabor the point, but Mr. Byrd’s performance made me want to leave at intermission. Thankfully, I stayed, and was able to experience Ms. Burse’s Sister Margaret come into her own. I was able to see Mr. Baldwin’s purpose manifest itself, clearly see the hypocrisy of the church elders, and ultimately be moved by Sister Margaret’s final epiphany on the meaning of God’s love.. To that, I can only say, Amen!”

-- Brad Rudy (



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