Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The Amen Corner dates from 1953, has not had a solid history of major productions that I can uncover, but still, we are talking about James Baldwin here. The play looks at the importance of the church within the African-American community. Sister Margaret is the preacher in a small, probably storefront congregation, and during the course of three acts she faces multiple personal crises within her own family, which threaten her relationship with her congregation. The play seems rooted in its time and does not play all that well except as an historical document. Only the examination of the for-the-ages question of how much of faith is real transfers well. The music heard in the church scenes enliven the piece greatly; otherwise, I think The Amen Corner might fall very flat with modern audiences.
This play reinforces something that I first noticed with the season opener, Raisin: the quality of the acting among WBTT regulars has improved greatly. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why this is, but this production, cast with lots of WBTT regulars, is solidly acted, when in the past the February dramatic production often turned to a different pool of performers.
Syreeta Banks stepped into the role of Sister Margaret at a late hour. The actress originally scheduled to play the part is one I have greatly admired in past performances, but Ms. Banks brings a huge persona to the role that I doubt the other woman could have. Much is being made of the fact that this is only Ms. Banks' second dramatic role, after major undertakings in such musicals as Ragtime, Sister Act, and Dreamgirls. Make no mistake about it, Ms. Banks is a mega talent. She dominates the production the way a fiery pastor dominates a religious congregation. This is a performance to be reckoned with.
Brian L. Boyd plays her son, David. I would place the character's age at about 17-21. Mr. Boyd is considerably older, and here registers as about mid-twenties. He makes it work far better than I think it should. Joel P.E. King is harrowing as Margaret's dying estranged husband who comes back into her life. The coughing late in the play is frighteningly real. Sieglinda Fox plays Sister Moore, with visions of her ascension to the pulpit, should Sister Margaret falter. Ariel Blue and Patric Robinson are Sister and Brother Boxer, elders in the church. Khadija Sallet contributes a moving vignette as Ida Jackson, a young mother praying for her sick baby's recovery. Lonnetta Gaines as Sister Douglas, Jai Shanae as Sister Sally, Brentney J as Sister Rice, Carvas Pickens as Brother Davis, and Elaine Many as Sister Price round out the congregation. Michael Kinsey plays the choir director, although he is not the music director of the production.
Chuck Smith is directs and it is not hard to attribute the growth in acting abilities to him and fellow guest director Jim Weaver. No matter what, this production is focused and well handled. Elaine Mayo is the music director of the production. Michael Alan Stein designs the costumes, Michael Newton Brown the extremely functional setting, and Nick Jones is the lighting director. Travis McCue has designed wigs that bring things up a notch from years gone by. Regulars Juanita Munford (production stage manager), Annette Breazeale (properties designer) and James E. "Jay" Dodge II (production manager) are in place to ensure the company's continued excellence.
The Amen Corner, through March 3, 2019, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):