Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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On the wing of a prayer

The Amen Corner” is not a musical.

Funny, then, that the music is the best part about it.

A couple of chords, a little hand-clapping, a chorus of voices and plenty of “amens” sets the Goodman Theatre’s revival of James Baldwin’s drama on its feet. But while the music manages to stay on key, the play itself falls a half-step flat.

Baldwin offers a story of faith – faith in God, faith in family ties and faith in oneself. The spotlight falls on Sister Margaret Alexander (Pat Bowie), the preacher of a storefront church in 1950s Harlem who really believes that “if your mind ain’t on Him every hour of the day, ” then Satan will come wreak havoc. She’s raised her son David (Nikkieli Demone) in the church ever since she walked out on her husband 10 years ago, and she’s certain that one day he also will receive “the call” to preach. But when Margaret’s estranged husband Luke (Philip Edward Van Lear), a poor and sick jazz musician, returns home, her once loyal congregation begins to gossip; she faces losing her son and her standing in her church.

Spiritualism lies at the center of the play, and although Director Chuck Smith’s scenes in the church are impressive from a musical and comedic standpoint, they lack realism. The members of the congregation aren’t capable of capturing the emotion and spiritual understanding that their characters should hold. When they raise their hands in prayer to feel God’s presence around them, they’re not convincing.

Baldwin infuses his story with natural humor, and the actors’ comic timing is excellent. Still, the relationships lack the intensity the play needs. When Luke returns, you expect tears shed and harsh words uttered. But oddly, the now-separated duo get along just fine. He raises his voice once or twice, but she doesn’t respond.

Jacqueline Williams offers a standout performance as Odessa, Margaret’s older sister. She manages to hold onto the real, sympathetic qualities that Baldwin grants her character. The most riveting scene in the play is when Odessa speaks up against the congregation members who are trying to remove Margaret from the pulpit. She defends her sister, convincing them and the audience that they are in the wrong.

The set, inventively designed by Felix. Cochren, is like an open doll’s house. Upstairs is the church and downstairs is Margaret’s home, which she shares with David and Odessa. Action also takes place outside of the house on a sidewalk. Smith takes advantage of these multiple placements by allowing scenes to overlap – action can occur upstairs, downstairs and outside simultaneously. But because the church is placed on the second level, it seems too far away, and the metal fence lining the top floor further separates the action from the audience. It’s like police tape at a crime scene: Audience members aren’t allowed to get involved in the story. They cannot feel sympathy for or relate to the characters.

It’s sad that Baldwin’s powerful, well-written story is kept at bay. His tale is wrought with emotion and personal realization. He questions religion and relationships, but his tone remains warm and even light.

Music aside – and the music is glorious – this would have been a better read. nyou

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On the wing of a prayer