Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Amen Corner seeds start of new black theater district

James Baldwin classic marks hopeful emergence of new black theater district

By Prester “Shake Spear” Pickett, M.F.A.

A strong cast anchors the inauguration of Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble company in The Amen Corner, which runs through a matinee performance Sunday, December 10 at the new Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The Holy Trinity Cultural Arts Center (HTCAC) at 7209 Woodland Avenue is almost a quarter in blocks east of what was once known as “The Double Nickel,” or East 55th Street. This part of Cleveland was once known as “The Forgotten Triangle.” Today, in the midst of all of the historical geographic descriptions, a ticket to Holy Trinity's production of The Amen Corner will bring you to a place that Holy Trinity's pastor, Dr. Andrew D. Clark, has rechristened “the new Black Theater District.”

Director Terrence Spivey, left,
founder of Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble
theater company, with Holy Trinity COGIC
pastor Andrew D. Clark.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]
HTCAC has united with Powerful Long Ladder Ensemble's artistic vision in an embrace of “the belief that theatrical arts hold transformative potential.” In many ways, they have combined efforts to find in James Baldwin’s classic work a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin-sick soul. This Terrence Spivey-directed piece takes you to church, the one where foot stomping, hand clapping, and harmonizing voices usher you into a devotion without the contemporary accouterments of state-of-the-art technological alterations.

The Amen Corner plot is centered around Sister Margaret, convincingly played by Jeanine Gaskin.  The December 1 opening night saw Gaskin find every dimension of black womanhood as a sister, loving spouse, and mother despite the conditions of hardships and estrangements. As Margaret pastors a congregation that is critical of her leadership because she is a single woman, you are forced to watch the play and think about the type of challenge that a woman pastor might have faced during the time when Rosa Parks declined to relinquish her seat on that Cleveland Avenue bus. The need to contrast that thought with the fact that opposition to women in the pulpit still exists today soon follows.

Much like many of the storefront churches that developed in Cleveland in response to the great migration after the end of World War I with a fight abroad, this play highlights the fight at home that took place against the warring idea of separate but equal. While it concentrates on the life of a particular family, it reminds us of racism’s serious and lasting impact and may inspire audiences to consider opening history books as well as bibles.

Praise the Lord and put out the Preacher!
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The set of Margaret's church is framed on the basement stage of Holy Trinity C.O.G.I.C. The home that she shares with her sister is thrust in front of the church scene and slightly elevated above the main floor with the audience. Unfortunately, the structure of the basement causes a concerning acoustics problem that sometimes obscures the dialogue. But, eventually the arrangement is accepted when the consideration of all of the other dynamics of community theater are understood to be at work on the foundational level of this theater as a work in progress.

Sister Margaret and her husband are confronted by
the challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood.
[Mychal Lilly Photography]

The realization that community theater evolves because the people recognize a need to tell their own story empowers the overall experience with this off-Broadway, or for us off-Euclid, encounter. The relevance of this piece speaks to conditions that are still the same today as they were in the past.  

Discussions about infant mortality and poverty are as traumatizing today as they were yesterday. However, the references to the impact of racism with this Baldwin relic directs a closer attention on how we survived versus how we were oppressed. The human experience of a son's longing for his father in his life is portrayed through contrasting dimensions in the developing craft of Kali Hatten, who plays  a teenaged David against the very seasoned Peter Lawson Jones, who portrays his father. Jones encourages the audience to extend to his character both sympathy and empathy in regard to his life's choices and indecisions.

Just like East 55th Street, this play attempts to present both sides of two coins—the religious and the secular with gosel and jazz as well as the young and the old amidst the struggles between righteousness and hypocrisy.  Meanwhile, the play gives several opportunites to reflect on popular bible verses anchored in the churchgoer and practical to a first-time visitor. Another comfort with the play are the clever inserts of familiar gospel songs coached by Sharolyn Ferebee and delivered by groomed voices that transition scenes to a new sequence of emotions.

Cleveland's collective memory of the days when churches fellowshipped with each other with regular concerts, socials, and even plays approach a renaissance in Cleveland with an ensemble with strong supporting actors that make moments both heavy and light. The discussion of Mt. Sinai Ministries advancing a production of A Raisin in the Sun adds to the emergence of a new Black Theater District in Cleveland on Woodland Avenue and give those interested in Black Theater a great alternative. In the meantime, there remain a few days of the doors being open for church and theater with The Amen Corner which is scheduled through this Sunday, December 10.

Prester Pickett is director of The Howard A. Mims African American Cultural Center at Cleveland State University.

SHOW TIMES: Thursday - Saturday - 7:30PM; Saturday Matinee - 1PM; Sunday Matinee - 3PM. For more information call 216.417.4571 or email

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