James Baldwin holds a seat of revered dominance within the canon of American literature from essays that predict a dark, ominous future for humanity if left to their own devices, to masterful novels timeless in the skillful tackling of themes about the Black community and the daily warfare they have long endured due to centuries of firmly-entrenched racism. Even more, it is Baldwin’s undeniable, unique ability to manipulate language, create lasting images and paint pictures with words that have served him best and provided us with unforgettable tomes.
However, Baldwin also challenged himself as a scribe for the theater, settling on a story which in true Shakespearean fashion, forges the angst of the existential world with the unbridled pathos of the Black Church in a tale about a Black youth coming into manhood — forced to choose between the ill-fitting familiar or to step out into a strange new world pregnant with unimaginable possibilities.
For their first work of the new season and decade, Shakespeare Theatre Company in Northwest offers a very special gift in the rarely-produced “The Amen Corner” — the most-celebrated of the two works Baldwin penned for theatrical performance.
The play, which continues through March 15, blends the musical vibrancy of the Black Church with a script replete with lyrical brilliance in a soaring presentation which tugs at our heartstrings and brings us to our feet in celebration and praise throughout the course of the production.
Chicago native Whitney White, the play’s director, describes the work as an “epic — part riveting family drama, part ‘Julius Caesar’ which reads like a Black Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.”
“Baldwin is one of the greatest minds of our times — a novelist, a poet, an activist — whose career as a playwright was short-lived only because of the more pressing political tasks that demanded his attention,” White said. “This work focuses on a woman struggling to keep her son safe and close to her as her seat of power as the pastor of a small church in Harlem is being undermined by many of the elders.”
“American audiences are not trained to receive the Black epic other than ‘Porgy and Bess’ even though there are so many others that deserve equal places of prominence on the stage. This piece offers a multitude of complex messages and rhythms and it challenged me — forcing me to bring my entire self to the process.”
White held auditions in New York City and in the District whose actors, she says, “remind me of Chicago’s artists — almost like repertory actors because they’re so good at what they do.”
“I needed an ensemble with great voices who were also heavy-hitting actors,” she said. “As I read the script — this story of a woman fighting to keep her life together — it spoke to me fiercely and brought me to my knees. And while it premiered on the campus of Howard University in the 1950s it’s still a bold, contemporary story.”
“My gateway drug into the arts was through music and I loved performing. But eventually I hit a wall. I knew there was more out here than being the token Black girl in the musical, or the drug addict or the girlfriend. Things came together with the help of my teachers in one quiet moment. Now, as an emerging director, I can hire the cast, the crew, the designers — and it feels good to be able to do more for more people,” White said.
As an example of being able to do more for others, White, perhaps fortuitously, reached back to an actor she met years ago — one who welcomed the then-newcomer with open arms and who so impressed her that she vowed to one day cast her in one of her productions.
That actor, the heralded, award-winning Chicago native E. Faye Butler, stars as Sister Moore, a cantankerous, godly woman whose character resembles that church elder who tires of being “second fiddle” and thirsts for power to take hold of the reins and the seat of authority — the pulpit.
But to do so, she will need to be manipulative and conniving. And Butler succeeds with relentless aplomb.
“Sister Moore isn’t simply a caricature and to become her I had to take her seriously,” Butler said. “Whitney is brilliant and she dug deeply into the canon to figure this play out. Some may view it as a musical because of the songs that figure so prominently — songs we know from our own culture and which resonate with the Black community. But this is a play — make no mistake — just one with music.”
“I grew up in a household that had tons of music but I always knew I wanted to be an actor. Art was always around me. Mahalia Jackson was my godmother and my mother exposed us to opera, ballet, you name it.”
“Still, when I talk to younger actors, I tell them I’ve always preferred being a working artist instead of a star. Sometimes you have to accept pay that’s below your usual amount. Sometimes a working artist doesn’t get the big check or the celebrity status. But this business is one that’s fleeting so you have to have a light. For me, acting isn’t something I do — it’s who and what I am,” said Butler who says when she’s not on stage, she assumes “roles” that truly matter: mom, grandma, wife.
“The only thing they care about is where are the cookies and what’s for dinner,” said Butler, who besides appearing on stages nationwide also performs across the U.S. in concert, cabaret, club and theatre venues with her big band, EFO Orchestra.
A Strong Cast Makes This Show Pop
Other cast members who bring their A-game to the stage include Mia Ellis (Margaret Alexander) — the pastor of the church whose past suddenly comes roaring back, forcing her to reexamine her priorities, the choices she’s made and the path on which she will ultimately travel; Harriett D. Foy (Odessa); Chike Johnson (Luke); Phil McGlaston (Brother Boxer); and Antonio Michael Woodard (David), the man-child eager to find his place in the world, hungering for someone to provide a roadmap as he steps out into unchartered waters.
Butler, Foy and Woodard in their lead roles are required to not only deliver their lines with emotion and power but must also take center stage on several of the songs. And they do not disappoint.
However, the true prima donna remains actress Nova Y. Payton who stars as Sister Douglass while asserting herself as the “voice” in the production. A native Washingtonian, Payton says she first got the acting bug at the tender age of three, actually preferring dance over singing. But as a church singer and having grown up, like Butler, in a house where the music of the Dramatics, the Chi-Lites, Sarah Vaughan and Mahalia Jackson were fixtures on the family playlist, she has forged a successful career because of her vocal prowess.
“This play wasn’t too difficult to prepare for because I grew up with a woman like Sister Moore in my church,” she said. “Actually, most of the characters in the play are folks we’ve all grown up with. And the women, both in the play and in real life, take their roles seriously.”
“I had no knowledge of this play prior to be invited to audition. But being part of this play with the music too has been great. Even more, it’s the message that’s so profound. We all have a past, we all make mistakes but we all, hopefully, learn and grow from those mistakes. The play also reminds us to be careful pointing fingers at others because you also have several fingers pointing back.”
“But I would say the greatest lesson which Baldwin shares is a simple one, but also profound. Our past does not determine who we are, unless we allow it to,” she said.
For tickets or information, go to www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.