In the middle of a season that they have themed as "The Sound of Music," On Q is doing something strange – a three-act play by James Baldwin, The Amen Corner. Didn't these African Americans know that Baldwin's 1955 drama had been turned into a Broadway musical in 1983?
As a matter of fact, they did. They also knew that Baldwin's original script isn't lacking for songs.
"The play has something like nine songs in act one, four in act two, and seven in act three," explains Ruth Sloane, who directs the On Q production slated to invade Duke Energy Theatre on January 13. "So I don't know why they even tried to write a musical!"
Well, it was the 80s, and even then it was pragmatic to think that two acts are better than three. But the result was an absurdity: a musical adaptation that had conspicuously fewer songs than the script it adapted!
It was also a conspicuous flop, running a mere 28 performances. Baldwin's work, while not a raging hit, ran three times as long when it hit Broadway in 1965.
You won't exactly be hurried along at the start, but you will be deeply immersed in the actual gospels and hymns that form the heritage of the Pentecostal church. "The first 17 pages of this play is a worship service in the Pentecostal church," says Sloane. "Baldwin obviously wanted the audience to experience the spiritual aspects of a worship service. And the music that he put in there is absolutely fabulous. I've been on a hunt for a lot of it. People don't sing it all anymore, but it exists."
Baldwin also creates a journey for his tragic heroine, Pastor Margaret, with both personal and spiritual conflicts. It's a rich lesson in how to live and love, but one that isn't often tasted outside of traditionally black colleges. Just a sliver of The Amen Corner was included in 1998 at UNC Charlotte when the Departments of Dance and Theatre offered a collection of 13 excerpts titled Scenes from the Black Theatre. On Q's is the first full-length production of any Baldwin work hereabouts during the Loaf Era.
Sister Margaret must reckon with her past when her ex-husband Luke suddenly shows up, a dying jazz trombonist who wishes to make amends. Meanwhile, Margaret's son David – and her church – are beginning to question her authority and spin out of her control, imperiling her future. Endowed with his musical talents, David gravitates toward his dad.
"You know what's so wonderful about this three-act?" Sloane gushes. "It has two central points of conflict, and you don't find that in most plays. Serious conflicts. You know, the husband returning and that church."
Sloane also has one very fine actress to shoulder Sister Margaret's tribulations. Terry Henry has been the hot actress in town since she blazed forth in the title role of Black Pearl Sings! nearly two years ago – keeping the flame burning at Queen City Theatre Company last summer with a torrid cameo in Chess. And who better to take on the role of David than Omar El-Amin, Charlotte's ace teen malcontent?
LeShea Stukes, another powerhouse, will be Sister Moore, the challenger to Margaret's leadership at the church, and Melvin McCullough is Luke – really old enough to be David's father, Sloane promises, though we'll have to see about his trombone chops.
Baldwin, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, was a child preacher, so he writes passionately about church life – and a pastor's homelife – from the inside. He also has great compassion for the wrong-headed, tyrannical Margaret.
"He realized what his mother had to go through to raise him and his brothers and sisters," says Sloane. "When she was in between husbands, he watched this woman struggle to keep the children from going into the streets. So this woman being able to go to a higher level of faith, Baldwin had seen it repeatedly."