The Amen Corner, Shakespeare Theatre Company

There comes a point with a classical theatre company where the audience, more often than not, knows a seasons' plays backwards and forwards. Classical theatre banks on the fact that excellent theatre is found, not necessarily in novelty, but in finding new truths and new perspectives in every production. A new staging of Twelfth Night might suddenly make you see the melancholy underneath Toby Belch, or a Hamlet might illuminate for an audience just how closely tied tragedy and comedy lie in the human heart.  And then sometimes, you're lucky enough that a classical theatre champions a play that's part of a new canon of human experience, one from much closer to home, and it blazes out triumphantly from the stage, shining light into all the theatre's corners.

The Amen Corner, James Baldwin's stunning 1954 piece of theatre, mixes music and stagecraft together into a story about an African American corner church, its pastor, her family, and her congregation. Under the exquisite direction of Whitney White, the talented ensemble tells Baldwin's story of religion, hypocrisy, power, and family with pathos, humor, and undeniable flair. Daniel Soule's towering set design covers every bit of the Sidney Harmon Hall stage and allows the actors to move with fluidity from public to private spaces, an effort which is aided beautifully by Andy Jean's costume designs that further illuminate those private and public selves--Jean can tell a whole story in the contrast between Margaret's preaching robes, day dresses, and dressing gown. Crucially, under Victor Simonson's music direction, the gospel hymns that both drive the story and offer commentary upon it sound glorious from the moment the congregation arrives and the play begins. White's cast, unsurprisingly, is filled with actors with plenty of musical theatre experience, and their ability to let familiar hymns speak extra volumes through their performances is wonderful to see.

There's not a single weak link in the ensemble, but there are particularly powerful performances t0 acknowledge here. Harriett D. Foy shows a backbone of steel beneath a quiet and loyal frame as Odessa, while Antonio Michael Woodard portrays the vulnerability and agony of a son torn between his own desires and the conflicting paths of his parents. As Margaret, Mia Ellis gives a beautiful portrayal of righteous strength and human frailty, torn between a faith that requires constant pain and sacrifice and a heart with its own desperate needs and struggles. Additionally, E. Faye Butler, in a welcome return to STC, brought down the house on opening night again and again as a church elder exerting her own growing authority and will.

When the final blackout settled over The Amen Corner on Tuesday night, it was absolutely clear that the American classical theatre needs James Baldwin, and Washington DC is blessed to have Whitney White's production on the Shakespeare Theatre Company's stage. Sometimes, a critic's job is very simple: you must see this show.


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