Penumbra merges secular and sacred in 'The Amen Corner'
The Amen Corner, James Baldwin's landmark work, has been on the radar of Penumbra Theater's Lou Bellamy for a long time. "I've been teaching the play for over 30 years at the University of Minnesota," he says. "It was always on the list, but then it would fall off."
The show, currently in previews at the Guthrie Theater, opens this Friday. It stars the incomparable Greta Oglesby as Sister Margaret, the devout leader of a Harlem congregation, and Hannibal Lokumbe as her estranged, jazz-playing husband Luke.
Having an actor with the right musical chops was essential for the production.
"The polemics of the play are sort of skewed. You don't hear the secular side of the music. All of the gospel is there, but I didn't think the other side was represented in an egalitarian fashion," he says. "With Hannibal as a virtuoso trumpet player, we were able to see him shape the music."
"Baldwin needs attention," Bellamy says of the playwright, who crafted The Amen Corner in the 1950s. "America needs to read his words again. His observations are just as cutting and cogent as they ever were. The play is just the beginning of that conversation."
Oglesby first encountered the work years ago. "I read it in the living room of a girlfriend of mine who was really passionate about the play. I just fell in love with it the first time hearing and reading it," she says.
About a decade ago, Oglesby performed in the show at the Goodman in Chicago, playing the younger Sister Boxer and acting as understudy for Margaret. "I was too young to play her at the time. You have to have life experiences to play it," she says. "The second time through, it has been a richer, deeper experience."
"I'm just trying to get into the head of Sister Margaret, to put on that armor so to speak. She's a really complex character, so it's been really gratifying to step into these shoes," she says. "It's going to be a really wonderful journey between now and when we close. All of us will be discovering things about our characters until we close in June."
The deep, experienced cast has given Bellamy a chance to adapt the production to their talents and strong points.
"It's a question of discovering the piece together. When someone comes up with something that surprises all of us, that's the fun of doing it. It's about the jazz of getting in there and taking a chance," he says. "They've thrown themselves into this with wild abandon."
As noted above, music is a vital component to the experience, even though the show certainly isn't a traditional musical. A 10-voice choir from Minneapolis's Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church also adds to the musical tapestry.
"Once the audience comes in, it is that last piece of the artistic process. It feeds you as an artist. They gave such energy to the piece last night [at the first preview]. It was such a rush to have them; the laughter and the gasps," Oglesby says.
IF YOU GO:
The Amen Corner
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Friday through June 17
For information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online
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