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Combining the powerful sweep and deep emotional journey of a Shakespearean tragedy with intimate moments of personal revelation, all suffused with the music of the Black church, The Amen Corner is an American classic and a truly grand theatrical event ready to fill the Sidney Harman Hall stage.
Director Whitney White and her design team will transform the theatre into a 1950s storefront church in Harlem, inviting the audience into the joy and worship of the piece. Said White, “We have this big gorgeous cast and this even bigger gorgeous stage, and so we’re working on ways to fill that and to explode Baldwin’s story to the scale that it needs, so that it can rock every single audience member who’s sitting in the house.”
The play amplifies the contrast between interior and exterior, and Daniel Soule’s scenic design allows for playing space both inside and on the surrounding streets of Harlem. The interior is a small building which holds both the church and Margaret’s home, and the worship space is neither grand nor ostentatious in its decoration. Look for many small details to make them feel very lived in and authentic. Soule described “a lot of very personal, human touches that define the spaces,” as well as iconic pieces from the 1950s in the kitchen and bedroom spaces.
Adam Honoré’s lighting design will use lighting to help focus on the interior spaces, but allow for people to be around all the time. “The ability to have people always watching, always looking, always judging, always empathizing,” said White, “it’s really dynamic.” She continued, “The thing that inspired me from being in a single parent home in the city is that it’s very hard to get privacy. Because it takes a village to raise you, but unfortunately, that village is always there.”
The Amen Corner is a period piece, and the costumes will be instantly recognizable and root the production in the 1950s through silhouettes and color palates. As Costume Designer Andy Jean shared, “My way into the piece was really thinking about Black lives in the early 50s, and about this particular group in New York, and how these characters adorn themselves when they come to worship.” The clothes help to tell the journeys that the main characters go on as they wrestle with their place in the family, in the congregation, and in the world. Central to the design are the wigs and hats the women wear. “The hair in this period is really interesting and intricate—there’s no two hairstyles that look the same,” explained Jean. Every woman will have their own individual look, something that Jean is working with the actors and STC Wig Master Dori Beau Seigneur to develop.
Key to this show is Music Director Victor Simonson. The Amen Corner is a play with music, containing more than a dozen songs but no musical arrangements to indicate how each should be performed. Some pieces, such as “Run On” and “Deep River” are well known and often performed, while others appear for the first time in the text. Victor has been composing the music and trying to figure out what Baldwin was hearing when he wrote this play. Through expansive research of the cadences and tendencies of African American spiritual music in the 1950s, as well as older pieces that would have been handed down, he has developed the rich aural tones of this play. Simonson has cherished this history lesson: “I get to explore the colors and the textures of traditional African American worship. For example, at this time in this particular church, there’s not a drum set yet, which is awesome because the people get to be the drums—the feet get to be the drums and the hands get to be the drums, and we get to use tambourines.”
The Amen Corner is a landmark piece of theatre and an American classic, and White is excited to bring it to D.C. “We want to reach every single person from the front row to the back of the house, and so the design that we’ve been curating over the past months is geared toward that, to amplify and to shake, to make the audience sweat as we sweat, to make it a really big immersive experience.”
The Amen Corner begins performances on February 11. Tickets start at $35 and are available at ShakespeareTheatre.org or by calling 202.547.1122.