The Amen Corner, Kuumba Theater and Hidden Stages. Hidden Stages hasn't found the tone to match its new, relatively sprawling surroundings, having moved from quirky, cramped confines west of Chinatown to Malcolm X College's auditorium for this production. James Baldwin's 1953 drama about the tug-of-war between family and religion is as ripe and relevant as ever. And as Sister Margaret--the earnest, self-righteous preacher who has problems at home--Hidden Stages veteran Doris Norris delivers a memorably searing portrayal. She's ably supported by Senuwell Smith as her estranged husband come home to die, Gyasi Kress as her neglected teenage son, and Karon Stewart as a Bible-thumping busybody.
But under the direction of the usually reliable Donn Carl Harper, many supporting performances are so small and subtle they essentially drown in this cavernous space. And a few amateurish touches that would have been easy to overcome in more intimate surroundings are glaring here. Several key dramatic moments are ruined when cast members peek out from the wings, whisper to each other onstage, or--in one galling case--snoop through the program when they're supposed to listen attentively as part of Sister Margaret's congregation.
Area gospel choirs who perform before the show and during intermission are a nice, community-minded idea. But the choir members changing their clothes and talking in the auditorium during the play's first 15 minutes are an almost insurmountable distraction. These groups also undercut Baldwin's ambivalence: he's far more conflicted on the topic of religion than rousing renditions of "Wade in the Water" and "Amazing Grace" would lead one to believe.