Luke staggers into his ex-wife Margaret’s Harlem flat – it’s the closest thing he has to “home” – carrying one thing: his shiny, lovingly maintained trumpet. Margaret, popular pastor of a fundamentalist church, is appalled to see him. He represents a part of her life she had thought safely in her past. He frightens her deeply.
But Luke doesn’t care. He has two agendae. First, he intends to save his son David from the corrosive Christianity practiced by Margaret. David is gifted and complicated, quite probably homosexual, just entering manhood. Two futures beckon: playing piano for his mother in the “safe” church; or sallying forth into the huge, dangerous but mysteriously thrilling world. “He got the call,” Margaret maintains, with increasing desperation. “He’ll get the call.” “I don’t care what life he leads,” Luke says, “as long as it’s his life.”
Agenda #2: Luke is going to die. He suffers from TB, barely to breathe, and that he is in the final hours of his life lends the play terrifying intensity. He represents music, artistic instinct, the real world, spirit. And at the same time he is a harbinger of death, a reminder that our time on this beautiful planet can be brutally limited. Luke’s passion plays out in a series of quiet and astonishing scenes, first with David, then with Margaret. These scenes are gorgeously wrought – and are worth the price of admission.
They also form the heart of James Baldwin‘s sprawling but exuberant, acutely observed, richly autobiographical portrait of life in a small Harlem church, The Amen Corner (Penumbra Theatre performing at the Guthrie, through June 17). The Amen Corner was composed (in 1954) when Baldwin was in his late 20s and the play does occasionally display a young writer’s lack of disciplined playwriting chops: it’s often repetitive and static. But no matter. Baldwin’s passion, his sense that Christianity is simultaneously empowering and stultifying animates The Amen Corner and lends it rousing energy.
James Baldwin is a true American master, who came into his own as a novelist (Fire On The Mountain) and, especially, as an essayist (The Fire Next Time, Notes Of A Native Son). He lived in an amazing era, violent and nation-altering. Despite the fact that he was, for most of his adult life, an expatriate living in France, Baldwin became a vigorous spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, an incisive truth-teller. Slight, frankly homosexual, with large dreamy eyes, Baldwin could transition from self-deprecating humor to fiery passion with breath-taking swiftness. He lives on on YouTube and is well worth checking out (especially his thoughtful debate with Malcolm X).
Director Lou Bellamy and set designer Vicki Smith create a vivid sense of Sister Margaret’s fundamentalist fastness amid the mad swirl of 1950s Harlem. We see, just barely, a billiards parlor, a liquor store. Kids play, drunks stagger, sailors ogle girls. But the church is a sweet sanctuary of gospel music – unless you are paraplegic this play will get your feet tapping – and joyful Lord-praising.
The performances in The Amen Corner are outstanding. Greta Oglesby plays Sister Margaret beautifully, fearful of what Luke represents, yet drawn, inevitably, to his deathbed. She never wavers from her religious convictions, even as old passions rise up unbidden. She is able to give expression to gorgeous defiance in the face of her congregation’s (egregiously unfair) accusations. Oglesby is also a terrific vocalist and she does some highly tasty singing – ditto the wonderful Dennis W. Spears. As Luke, Hannibal Lokumbe amazes, as he pants and weaves through his scenes – and plays them with can’t-look-away fervency. Plus, as a bonus, Lokumbe is a gifted trumpeter. What more could you ask for? As Odessa, Crystal Fox does quietly lovely work, as does Faye M. Price. Thomasina Petrus is a hoot.
And Eric Berryman as David. Wow. Quiet, understated, poised, sweet, drawn to his father’s musicianship, in love with his mother’s safe religiosity. Quietly defiant: “I have things I have to so,” he says, making you feel pressing burden of his future. Berryman dominates every scene he’s in. Bravo.
I would recommend The Amen Corner (enthusiastically), but with a caveat: it’s long. Come prepared to spend a solid three hours in your seat. And let James Baldwin’s enduring spirit wash over you.
For more info about John Olive please visit his (recently updated) website.