Lou Bellamy brilliantly directs James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at Guthrie Theater for a Penumbra Theatre Company/Guthrie Theater regional premiere. Bellamy, of course, is best known for taking scripts through their paces in St. Paul on Penumbra’s home ground at the Halle Q. Browne Community Center. An ace with ensemble casts, Bellamy has shown his hand to admirable effect with memorable Penumbra productions of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Seven Guitars and Two Trains Running.
Here, Bellamy tackles an unwieldy script to winning effect. Baldwin, it goes without saying, was an intriguing novelist and compelling essayist (Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time). Playwriting was far from his forte. Not that Baldwin didn’t understand and convey behavior. His scripts, though, (The Amen Corner, Blues for Mr. Charlie, Giovanni’s Room) talked too much, weighing their dramatic substance down beneath self-conscious monologue after monologue.
The Amen Corner, cut down from full length to two acts, would have delivered the same desperate message much more powerfully. Would’ve afforded immediacy. Instead, one endures long-winded exposition and tiring tedium to arrive at to indeed unearth, the drama.
At its heart, The Amen Corner is the saga of preacher Margaret Alexander, who fervently gives the holier-than-thou word of God to her Harlem congregation only to have her sordid past catch up, miring her feet in the same clay as those before whom she stands on bestowed high. When judgment day descends, she finds, as pious jackals circle and move in for the kill, there is no going unscathed.
The cast showcases Penumbra mainstay Greta Oglesby as Margaret in yet one more matronly turn. It’d be great to see this accomplished veteran break type. Here, she brings strong chops to bear, fleshing out an entirely sympathetic character.
Another Penumbra veteran, Austene Van, does wonders as saucy hypocrite Sister Moore. Between pinpoint timing and fluid delivery, Austene Van renders Sister Moore one holy ho’ and a half. Crystal Fox nearly steals the show as Odessa. Fox sings strong with a rich, raw edge and is a convincing actor.
The sole drawback to Bellamy’s casting is that Eric Berryman, portraying the catalyst role of David, couldn’t act wet in the middle of a rainstorm. Berryman is inert, alternately standing around like a lamppost and barely animated with wooden gestures.
Singing star Dennis W. Spears, who proved a fine actor at Penumbra in Blues for an Alabama Sky, gets to both air his pipes and show his chops, playing Brother Boxer with dry wit.
Boxer is the pragmatic, long-suffering husband to a clueless, profoundly overbearing wife. Said ball and chain is Sister Boxer, artfully rendered by Thomasina Petrus, also a celebrated singer.
Rounding the cast out with cameo appearances are star performer Shá Cage as Sister Sally and Faye M. Price, as true a chameleon as an actor can be, dragged out from behind her desk as Pillsbury House Theatre co-artistic director to play Sister Douglass.
This production is an enriching experience. After all, when last did Twin Cities theater see a James Baldwin play? Added to which, Lou Bellamy is at the top of his game, working with a killer cast. The Amen Corner at Guthrie Theater is not to be missed.
The Amen Corner runs at the Guthrie Theater through June 17. For more information, see the Spot listings on page 5.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.