Penumbra's Bellamy: Time is right to put on 'Amen Corner'

Greta Oglesby
Greta Oglesby as Sister Margaret Alexander in Penumbra Theatre Company's production of "The Amen Corner" by James Baldwin.
Photo courtesy Michael Brosilow/Guthrie Theater

Penumbra Theater Artistic Director Lou Bellamy has wanted to stage James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner" for 30 years. However he believes it's only now he has found the right way to present Baldwin's story of family and religion.

Penumbra, Minnesota's only professional African American theater, is presenting "The Amen Corner" on the thrust stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis beginning Friday. Central to the production is actor and singer Greta Oglesby, who plays the main character, Sister Margaret.

"The Amen Corner" is set in a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem in the 1950s. The play begins with a joyous church service.

This is Sister Margaret's church, and after the service she steps back into the room at the back where she lives with her son.

"You enter into the kitchen with just these everyday people, and you have no idea what's in store," said Oglesby.

Sister Margaret is a pastor who is unwavering in her belief in the gospel, and holds members of her congregation to strict adherence. But then her long estranged husband Luke turns up in her kitchen, sick with tuberculosis. His reappearance sets in motion a series of events which shakes Sister Margaret to her core.

Lou Bellamy
Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. His newest production is James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," which opens Friday night at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"And what make it so interesting is this heroine has an Achilles' heel," said director Lou Bellamy. "She has a lie that is part of who she is. And it begins to grow."

"The Amen Corner" begins as a tale about family dysfunction and the depth of spirituality, but Bellamy says it quickly spins off in other directions as members of the congregation start a whispering campaign against Sister Margaret.

"This is a tale of greed and revenge," laughed Bellamy. "Very Shakespearean," added Oglesby.

James Baldwin wrote "The Amen Corner" in the early 1950s. Lou Bellamy has taught the play for years, and has wanted to stage it for the last three decades. But Bellamy said he always felt the gospel music overpowered the important issues in the story.

That changed when he was able to cast Oglesby as Sister Margaret. He chose jazz trumpeter and actor Hannibal Lokumbe to portray Luke, and a host of other top actors are playing the other roles.

'The Amen Corner' cast
The cast of Penumbra Theatre Company's production of "The Amen Corner," by James Baldwin.
Photo courtesy Michael Brosilow/Guthrie Theater

"Suddenly you've got all of those elements and they can all speak, and we found ways to make that happen," he said.

Bellamy said Baldwin wrote about seeking a balance in life. Baldwin was writing at a time when many things in society were out of balance, in terms of race, gender, and many other things. Baldwin weaves them all into his drama.

"One of the yokes he chafed under was that his church wouldn't accept all of who he was, his homosexuality," said Bellamy. "And that is present in the play. It certainly resonates with today."

The world of "Tthe Amen Corner" is very familiar to Greta Oglesby. The daughter of a Pentecostal minister, her singing was born in the church.

"So I know this church so well and I know these people so well. I am married to a minister," she said. "I better not say it, but there might be some dissention in my church -- I am not saying that there is, but anyway, I've seen it. I've seen it so many times."

This is also Oglesby's first return to the Guthrie's thrust stage since her triumph a couple of years ago in Tony Kushner's "Caroline... or Change." Bellamy said she knows how to work what is a very large room, and as a result of the Kushner show, a large new audience knows it.

"She brings a whole community with her this time," Bellamy said. "A whole tradition that is brought into that experience and that thing that you are presenting."

The play opens Friday at the Guthrie, coming just a few weeks after a contentious debate about the lack of women and people of color in the Guthrie's upcoming 50th season.

Bellamy said having made up his own seasons, he knows you have to take the praise and the criticism as it comes. But he is proud of the way Penumbra and the Guthrie, under artistic director Joe Dowling, have been able to work together over the years.

"Putting the very, very best with the very, very best," he said. "I think this community deserves that and we are going to give it to them."

When asked if he still worries if he's ready to do "The Amen Corner" after thinking about it for all these years, Bellamy nodded and said, "It's time."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.