TRYOUT TIMES are here again at Ford's, where "Amen Corner" opened to less than enthusiastic reviews. I caught up with it a dozen performances later and rejoice to report progress.
But first, a flashback:
In 1953 Howard University's drama department was headed by poet-novelist-playwright Owen Dodson, who died this past summer. This was long before Howard got its Cramton Auditorium-Ira Aldridge stages, and performances were given on the creaking second floor of an ancient building on the east side of the campus. Within these pitiably rudimentary facilities, the sensitive and enthusiastic Owen accented theatrical classics, aiming to show that color was an artificial barrier.
One day he phoned with more anxious pressure in his voice than usual. He explained he had a new play in production by a youngish, unknown writer for whom the attention of a review would be helpful.
That night I was able to enthuse honorably over this strong drama about a woman evangelist who had built up a storefront church to support her and her young son after her husband's drunken callousness had driven her to this meager, hustling independence.
The language was strong, the lines terse. The central figure was powerfully drawn and there was criticism of her milieu, one swiftly recognized by the black audience and illuminating to this WASP. The author was a 29-year-old who had been thinking hard about his Harlem past while living in Paris, where Dodson had met him--James Baldwin. In 10 years he would stir the world with "The Fire Next Time."
Though I attempted to interest such producers as the Theatre Guild and the new Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens, it took 11 years for Frank Silvera to manage a professional West Coast production and, a year later, one for Broadway that lasted a modest 84 performances with Bea Richards in the major part. Over the years since, "The Amen Corner" has had many regional and foreign productions.
Conscious that this was a strong story rooted in a character many others would later develop--the black matriarch who holds her familytogether through her religious fervor--I was decidedly interested in the news that Philip Rose planned a musical version. Rose had discovered "Raisin in the Sun" and "Purlie Victorious" and had managed the latter's successful transition to the musical "Purlie." He seemed an aware adaptor-director for the chancy transition.
The problem of turning any play into a musical is that of omission. What do you leave out to make time for musical expression? Though no one believed it could be done, Lerner and Loewe managed to improve "Pygmalion" by transmuting it into "My Fair Lady." But no one yet, try as they have, has managed to set "The School for Scandal," "The Importance of Being Earnest" or "Blithe Spirit" to satisfying musical form.
So, how could this subtly complex story be wrestled into musical shape?
Here we get into one of theater's hidden traps. For while words and characters remain as conceived, that often neglected but critical half of any theatrical performances--the audience--changes mightily. In 30 years our attitudes have altered decisively.
Not that Baldwin was sentimentally sympathetic to the faith that served to bolster Sister Margaret's rough life. To him, her solution was false and her ending deservedly, inevitably bleak. But he couldn't avoid the fact that for Sister Margaret her faith had seen her through.
In addition, time and our altered mores have given her returned husband an audience sympathy he did not originally have. He basically was pretty much a drunken lout and Margaret understandably had left him. Somehow he has become that equally recognizable figure, the tortured, irresponsible artist, in his case a horn player.
There is another subtle trap. White liberals, brought up to deplore black Mammy or Stepin Fetchit stereotypes, shudder over traits in which black audiences find a kind of earthy, likable humor.
Evidently on opening night Rose and company had included too much libretto, explanations and excuses for Baldwin's situation. The whole now is some 45 minutes shorter than a dozen performances ago.
There remains a ways to go, however. Sympathy and understanding must be found for Sister Margaret, both in her material and the performance of Rhetta Hughes. There must be some appeal to this woman who has created a church, however modest, as well as that stern loftiness of spirit that ignites her flock to plot against her. The opening title song is by no means enough.
The critical point lies at the end of Act I, which is more devoted to husband Luke than to wife Margaret. She already has stated her position in a duet with him, "You Ain't Gonna Pick Up Where You Left Off," but there still are five more numbers to go and Margaret doesn't share in a single one. The script and songs are devoted to Luke and his relationship with his son. We excuse his cruel, long-ago action through the nicely developed father-son relationship. The mother has become the villain between them.
This is at far too much cost to the mother's role, and Hughes has not found a way to be more than stonyfaced. Surely there is character--and a stirring song--within this woman against whom the cards were stacked. She deserves a hearing for the benefit of the whole's dramatic effect.
The songs and orchestral and vocal arrangements (as well as conducting by Margaret Harris) are better than one might expect. This team of composer Garry Sherman and lyricist Peter Udell collaborated on "Purlie." There are several proper rousers, "We Got a Good Thing Goin'," "In His Own Good Time" and "Leanin' on the Lord." I admired how much choreographer Al Perryman (long since risen from choruses) was able to do with dances for the relatively small company.
Of the cast, I especially admired Ruth Brown, who as Margaret's sister makes much of a quiet, lovely ballad, "Somewhere Close By," and whose diction should be matched by all in the company. What a marvelous singer she is; one lost not a word of her lyrics or speech.
How much further "Amen Corner" will manage to improve in its remaining weeks at Ford's can't be ventured. Some hopefuls fail in their testing times: "Mr. President," "Hot Spot," "Spotlight," "Stages." Fewer make the choices that turn the promising into the triumphant: "Hello, Dolly!," "1776."
But "Amen Corner" is clearly doing what tryouts are meant to do--getting rid of what doesn't work, searching for ways to clarify, simplify and electrify--and it is in far better shape than when it opened.