With professional black theater so scarce in Los Angeles (indeed everywhere), even a two-performance revival of James Baldwin's creaky "The Amen Corner" by the Cambridge Players had to be welcome news.
True, it was never a great play, but the Broadway version originated in Los Angeles in 1964 in a wildly successful production staged by the late Frank Silvera. Beah Richards rose to stardom in its central role and almost single-handedly carried the play's success on Broadway. It was something one wanted to see again.
In Cambridge's ranks are such pros as Esther Rolle, Taurean Blacque, Hal Williams, Juanita Moore and Helen Martin--the last two of whom were in the Broadway "Amen" 20 years ago. It was enough to raise any audience's expectations. But the show that opened at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena Friday didn't have a prayer.
Beckman has always been a difficult house for spoken drama, with its high ceiling and wide, shallow stage, more suited to microphones and lecterns than to actors and sets. Words get lost in it. (They did Friday.) Actors have to navigate with care--though not quite as much care as the Cambridge Players, who seemed to be having trouble not only with the shallowness of the stage, but also with the awkwardness of E. E. Wigley's cramped and uninspired set and their maneuvers in it.
Lights (by Prince Nore) also were a problem, slowing the action by taking far too long to go up or down and giving the production the demoralized air of not having had enough rehearsal.
Whatever the reasons, the performance suffered. It ran an unwarranted three hours, came across as tentative and the actors as distinctly ill at ease.
Rolle was believable enough as Sister Margaret, the pastor of a Harlem church who finds herself in conflict with her calling, her congregation, her son and the husband she left to follow God, but she was not compelling. Sparks never flew between her and Taurean Blacque as that unholy trumpet-playing husband to whom she'd lost her heart. And Ron Bell as their son David was too indecisive to ignite any of the crucial scenes between him and his mother or his father.
Helen Martin had some tidy moments of pique as the self-righteous Sister Moore. When she did not give way to shrillness, Cheryl Francis touched us as the mother of a dying child. The lovely Juanita Moore maintained dignity as Margaret's loving spinster sister, but nothing more. And Hal Williams was wasted in a stereotypical role as a hypocritical church elder.
The evening's few joys came chiefly from the Agape Singers who, under the musical direction of Kenneth Baker, offered some superior choral singing (none better than their rendition of "Somebody's Calling My Name").
For the rest, little help came from director Edmund Cambridge whose by-the-numbers staging seemed more designed to get actors from point A to point B without collision than to probe what emotional interstices exist in the play.
It only underscored the fundamental artifice of Baldwin's drama, which was given its moment of inflated glory by the uniqueness of Beah Richards' creation of the role of Margaret, but now shows serious signs of not surviving into another era. Somehow, the Cambridge Players (for whom this production is a maiden voyage as a professional company) and the audience deserved a better break.