John Grimsley's set for James Baldwin's 1965 drama The Amen Corner, recently produced by the Anthony Bean Community Theater, laid out a symbolic geography of the central character's spirit. We saw a modest kitchen flanked by a bedroom and a simple church hall.
Sister Margaret "Maggie" Alexander (Vinnie Matthews) is the preacher — an audacious nod to feminism considering that the play takes place in Harlem in 1954.
A Sunday morning service kicks things off. After some gospel songs, Maggie delivers a rousing sermon, censoring "those sanctified fools, who would make everybody uncomfortable" by disapproving of common human weaknesses such as drinking, smoking and lust. The last point is aimed at Sister Moore (Sheleta Burke-Manuel), a church elder who has her eye on Maggie's position. Moore brags that no man has ever touched her.
Much of the drama takes place in the kitchen and bedroom downstairs from the church. Maggie's 18-year-old son David (Edward Buckles) plays piano for the church, but he aspires to be a jazz musician like his long absent father. There's a deep tension caused by David's desire to leave home and his mother's efforts to keep him in the fold. In an unsatisfactory compromise, his mother puts him through music school, but David increasingly stays out late at night.
The arrival of Luke (Roddic Johnson) causes the greatest tumult. Luke is Maggie's severely ill ex-husband, who becomes bedridden and appears unlikely to recover. We learn that he didn't desert the home, but that Maggie got so fed up with him, she took her son and tried to start a new, independent life. Furthermore, the couple also had a stillborn baby. That's when Maggie turned to religion.
Meanwhile, Moore and the church elders poison the congregation against their preacher on trumped-up charges of financial mismanagement.
Maggie's life is falling apart quickly, and her sister Odessa (Donna King) is one of her few remaining supporters. David is absolutely determined to pursue the life of a musician, so the sisters will be alone, homeless and without income. Maggie tells Odessa they'll go someplace else, but the future looks grim for the battered pair.
The Amen Corner is a three-act play and it runs long. It focuses unflinchingly on the human frailty that often underlies organized religion. Matthews played the lead role with skill and nuance, and under Anthony Bean's direction, the entire cast gave apt performances. — DALT WONK