The most impressive performance comes from Sister Moore

Review of  ‘The Amen Corner’ at Shaw Festival

By Canute Lawrence

(From left) Janelle Cooper as Margaret Alexander, Andrew Broderick as David, Jenni Burke as Sister Boxer, David Alan Anderson as Brother Boxer, Allan Louis as Luke, Monica Parks as Sister Moore and Alana Bridgewater as Odessa in The Amen Corner (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.

The opening performance of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at Shaw Festival 2023 took place in Niagara-On-The-Lake on Saturday, August 19. The Shaw Festival Theatre was packed to capacity. Billed as ‘a must-see’ production, Baldwin’s 1953 play is set in a Pentecostal church in Harlem.

The Amen Corner is a three-act play that highlights the struggles of a teenaged boy, David, who is conflicted between trying to please his devoted Christian mother by staying in church and following his father’s dream of becoming a renowned Jazz musician. Additionally, David’s mother and pastor of the church, Margaret, is fighting her own battles of devotion to religion, her need for sexual gratification and love as well as her fight to escape poverty. The story is very much relatable today and is synonymous with tragedy; in this case, a psychological tragedy.

Pastor Margaret Alexander, played by Janelle Cooper, can be seen as one of the tragic figures as she genuinely means well, but whose decisions in the past eventually come back to haunt her like Shakespeare’s tragic hero Macbeth. From the start of the performance, Janelle colors the character quite well as a strong, devoted, in-control pastor to a woman who grapples with the realities of her life, past and present, evoking much pathos from the audience. Andrew Broderick plays David, a musical prodigy who struggles between devoting his life to God and playing Jazz. Andrew’s portrayal needs more of a nuanced and balanced emotional delivery that will make the audience feel David’s pain. Alana Bridgewater has done a good job portraying Odessa as she tries to be the voice of reason bridging the gap between the harsh reality of the 50s and the promise of a better life Christianity offers. Alana has a powerful singing voice which the audience craves more of at the end of her solo rendition. The most impressive and memorable performance comes from Monica Parks who plays Sister Moore. Monica totally immerses herself in the relatable character of Sister Moore to the point where she ‘becomes’ Sister Moore – the holier-than-thou-ever-righteous church-goer who, from the start of the play, it becomes obvious that she wants to achieve more for herself and from the church.

The most striking aspect of the production is the set designed by Anahita Dehbonehie. The set, a Pentecostal church upstairs and a small living space downstairs, highlights the tightness of not just the physical space in which the congregation worships and Pastor Margaret and the rest of her household live, but also the lack of freedom David has to express his emotional and sexual desires unfettered by family and social expectations. The revolving set, with effective lighting designed by Mikael Kangas, also reveals the dark backstreets of Harlem, a symbolism of the general hardships African Americans faced (and continue to face) amidst racial and social injustices to which none of the characters makes any direct reference.

The direction by Kimberley Rampersad is satisfactory. There are some very long dialogues that could have been more effective if better handled. The director has the responsibility to find creative ways of maintaining the energy in each scene and keeping the audience engaged. The singing was just satisfactory; it was not great even though there is no doubt that the cast has the potential to deliver the type of soul-piercing, hair-raising, tears-inducing singing that is expected of a Pentecostal church. The production falls short in the-afore-mentioned area, and Jeremiah Sparks’ music direction should make the audience-congregation shout ‘AMEN!’ at the end of every song. Costumes designer, A.W. Nadine Grant, competently robes the choir and cast in attire befitting of the decade all of which complement the set, lighting, and various characters.

The final show will be on October 8, and while the opening performance was not an electrifying one, one hopes that subsequent shows will deliver suspenseful moments so spectacular that emotions will be quickened and the audience will ‘catch the spirit’ of a liberating awakening. Amen!