THE AMEN CORNER, Hidden Stages Chicago. The congregations of Bethlehem Temple and the Christian Assembly Outreach Ministries all but overflowed the tiny Hidden Stages Chicago loft the night I was there--but what more appropriate audience could there be for a play that opens with a rip-snorting sermon? Of course Sister Margaret exhorts her flock to "put their house in order" and then proceeds to illustrate the difficulty of doing that. But playwright James Baldwin remains one of the most articulate voices in American literature: he charts the path by which his arrogant clergywoman recalls her humanity, too late, with intricate subtlety and breathtaking eloquence.
Donn Harper directs a vigorous cast who give Baldwin's occasionally overwritten arguments an urgency and immediacy beyond mere actorly legerdemain. Ruth Miller, her contralto voice throbbing with sorrow, delivers a moving performance as the inflexible Sister Margaret, as do Jacques C. Smith as her estranged jazz-musician husband and Anthony Johnson as the son torn between his loyalty to his mother, who would keep him, and his father, who would set him free. Bearing witness to Margaret's agony are Launa Thompson's Sister Odessa, the sole antagonist of the vengeful Brother Boxer (nicely underplayed by Brian B. Brock), and Chel-Le Evans's self-righteous Sister Moore, whose sweet Mississippi delta speech conceals a ruthless ambition.
It would be easy to dismiss The Amen Corner as a parable meant only for the devout, but the struggle to do right in a confusing universe can be found anywhere. One need not be a member of Sister Margaret's little Harlem church to recognize the personalities and dynamics there.