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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Amen Corner
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule


Adrian DeVaughn Summers, Kenneth Early,
Kyndra Dyanne Jefferies, Torie Wiggins,
Keisha L. Kemper and Burgess C. Byrd

Photo by Mikki Schaffner
James Baldwin was a multi-faceted writer. He wrote impassioned novels, including "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1953) and he was an outspoken activist. He also aspired to be a playwright, and his first attempt to do so was The Amen Corner, published in 1954 but not produced until a decade later. Interestingly, while his focus was on the Black experience in America, both his novel and play were written while he lived as an expat in Paris, France. Perhaps that distance gave him a sharper perspective on issues he wrestled with in both his novel and his play. His writerly ways are clearly evident in his eight-page prefatory note to the play. Baldwin concluded this essay stating, "The American Negro really is a part of this country, and on the day we face this fact, and not before that day, we will become a nation and possibly a great one."

The Amen Corner is currently receiving its local premiere by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Set in a 1950s storefront church in Harlem, the set (designed by Samantha Reno and evocatively lit by Jessica Drayton) is a split-level environment, a simple, meagerly furnished kitchen (with a new Frigidaire refrigerator), the focus of a neat downstairs apartment with an adjacent bedroom. Upstairs is the sanctuary with an upright piano and an out-of-place stained-glass window with an image of Christ, a source of congregational consternation about its cost.

The play's central character is Pastor Margaret Alexander (Torie Wiggins), who strives to control her congregation and her teenage son David (Adrian DeVaughn Summers), a pianist who is drawn to a musical career. Her struggles are framed by a gospel choir, while her son and his long-absent father Luke ("Ranney"), a musician, bond over their love of jazz.

Luke's reappearance after a decade away from his family is the catalyst for an upheaval within the church where Margaret has become the pastor, an unusual position of authority for a Black woman in the 1950s. She has positioned her single state as the result of Luke's abandonment, but it becomes clear that it was she who took young David and left. This revelation not only undermines her leadership, but it also causes David to question the path she has set for him to become a pastor himself. The often dissolute life of a musician has left Luke in poor physical shape, and he becomes bedridden in the apartment's spare room. Conversations between him and David evolve from awkward to mutual understanding and enthusiasm.

Baldwin's novelistic inclination can be heard in several long speeches that contribute mightily to the show's impact, but also to its length–three acts and two intermissions with a running time close to three hours. Nevertheless, insightfully directed by Candice Handy and thanks to compelling acting and especially spirited choral singing of gospel hymns (Yemi Oyediran serves as music director and arranger), the story unfolds with a broad spectrum of the Black experience in mid-20th-century America.

Wiggins's portrait of Margaret begins as an imperious leader whose aim is to keep her flock close to their faith. She ably captures the rhythms of religious sermonizing and uses her imposing presence to great effect as she displays her commitment to God. But her pious fa├žade slips when Luke arrives, with failing health and revelatory remarks that cause her parishioners to question her leadership. The singularly named "ranney" is a powerful stage presence as Luke, and his arrival is startling to the gathered church members and concerning to Margaret. "Don't run from the things that hurt you," he declaims, advice pertinent to several characters. Margaret's assurance is further eroded when her piano-playing son begins to reveal that he is drawn to a musical career that will take him away from the upstairs church sanctuary. As David, Summers turns in a delicately drawn young man who grows in strength and conviction toward his own path as the story unfolds.

The large cast has other standouts. Burgess C. Byrd is Sister Moore, a holier-than-thou advocate of the straight-and-narrow expectations imposed on Margaret, and Kenneth Early and Kyndra Dyanne Jefferies back her up as a married couple who have bristled under Margaret's stern ways. (In the third act, Early delivers a haunting solo a cappella hymn.) Keisha L. Kemper, as Margaret's older sister Odessa, is a right-minded exponent of pragmatic thought who does her best to support her sister as she wrestles with her path forward. Jasimine Bouldin provides a brief, moving portrait of a young mother struggling with the deaths of two infant children, unable to grasp how God could allow such devastation.

While Cincy Shakes was established three decades ago to present plays by William Shakespeare, the company has broadened its repertoire to other stage classics, including works by American playwrights such as August Wilson. The Amen Corner, with a cast of 13 able Black performers directed by Handy, the company's director of education and herself an accomplished, versatile performer, demonstrates the theatre company's dedication to diverse talent and material. It's too bad Baldwin didn't continue to pursue his aspirations to be a playwright–there is genuine promise in this play.

The Amen Corner runs through February 11, 2024, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street( adjacent to Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit www.CincyShakes.com or call 513-8381-2273.