With a choir of powerhouse singers adding joyful noise, Sister Margaret’s fall is set in motion by the preacher’s blindness to her own weaknesses and a venomous congregation’s vengeful schemes. A passel of exemplary performances attends this Learlike stripping away of titles, privileges and presumptions, among them: Harriett D. Foy as Margaret’s protective sister, Odessa; Deidra LaWan Starnes and Phil McGlaston as the vindictive Boxers; Chiké Johnson as Margaret’s estranged husband, Luke; and, most ferociously, E. Faye Butler in a sensational turn as Sister Moore, a force of volatile piety with whom you contend at your peril.
It’s a play of cantankerous characters and operatic emotions, the sort of melodrama in which worshipers sink to their knees in paroxysms of devotion and families spill out their grievances in arias of frustration and anguish. What fun there can be in holding nothing back! In Margaret’s church and in these thrilling voices — Jade Jones, Nova Y. Payton and Lauryn Simone among the standouts — releasing oneself from worldly woe is taken to blood-sport extremes. No wonder the aptly named set designer Daniel Soule places the proceedings in a monumental cityscape of brick, with a sanctuary open to the sky: These parishioners have long ago raised the roof all the way up to heaven.
Baldwin wrote “The Amen Corner” in the early 1950s, and it was first produced at Howard University. So Shakespeare Theatre’s mounting is indeed a homecoming. And what warm and lavish respect the company pays to the writer and his work. The refreshing of the organization’s mission, under its new artistic director, Simon Godwin, also seems to be a feature of this offering. “Classical theater” has probably ceased to be a useful term for limiting the thrust of a company, even if Shakespeare remains a forte. It’s high time for a reexamination of what hewing to classical forms means and, for that matter, of what we consider the canonical work that these days might fill the Harman’s 774 seats.
In Sister Margaret, the playwright created a figure of tragic dimensions. That he made his conflicted heroine a female spiritual leader, at a time when the trials of black women were hardly front and center in American drama, imbues “The Amen Corner” with a revolutionary spirit. As embodied by Ellis, she’s a charismatic figure who is as prone to arrogance and overreach as a man. But she’s also saddled with an expectation for righteousness beyond anything a man in her position would be required to uphold. Her downfall occurs in her fatal fog of absolute certainty, about her own power, as well as God’s.
The congregants, fed by Sister Moore’s selfish ambitions and the Boxers’ resentments, tire of Margaret’s rigid prescriptions for faith. In their eyes, her earthly troubles — the abandoned, alcoholic husband, the increasingly rebellious son (Antonio Michael Woodard) — signal a failure to adhere to a higher moral standard. For Baldwin, Margaret’s cardinal sin is blocking the jazz-musician ambitions of Woodard’s David. Nothing is so deserving of condemnation, it seems, as thwarting the aspirations of an artist.
White, who earlier this season directed Aleshea Harris’s bracing “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, reveals the breadth of her talent here. “What to Send Up” was fleet and intimate, a memorial service to black victims of police killings; “The Amen Corner” is majestic and sprawling — a portrait, not a protest. The speeches are impassioned, sputtering expressions of bottled-up feelings, and White allows each of her major actors an opportunity, if you will, to take to the pulpit. You get the sense of an entire community seeking to shake off insularity, and feeling free to vent.
The feel of the 1950s is vibrantly achieved in Andy Jean’s dramatic, colorful costumes; a starched white, button-up coat dress and a green satin gown for Ellis are among the most vivid of the eye-catching looks. Attention must also be paid to the work here of music director Victor Simonson, who whips the gospel chorus into effervescent shape. At other times, the singers, moved by the spirit, whip themselves into holy-roller frenzies. Such is the energy surge onstage that you’ll want to know how you might plug into it yourself.
The Amen Corner, by James Baldwin. Directed by Whitney White. Lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Broken Chord. With Marty Austin Lamar, Jasmine M. Rush, Tristan André Parks. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $35-$120. Through March 15 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.