Strong voices impress in 'Amen Corner'

July 30, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

One of the most impressive features of Pamoja's scandalously underattended production of T. G. Cooper's original play, "Mr. Bojangles," earlier this year, was the performance of Victoria Mangram in the role of "Little Bo," the great Bill Robinson's loyal wife.

Ms. Mangram also is a director, and Pamoja's current offering -- a musical version of James Baldwin's play, "The Amen Corner" -- has been brought to the stage by this very talented Thespian from Howard University.

"Amen Corner" will play weekends at the Unitarian Church of Anne Arundel County in Annapolis through Aug. 8.

The play is the story of Sister Margaret, the pastor of a storefront church who came to Jesus after deserting her trombonist husband and taking their daughter with her. Margaret expects her daughter Davida to follow her into the ministry, thus fulfilling the mother's sense of mission.

But when the jazz man unexpectedly returns -- terminally ill and in need of establishing a relationship with his daughter before he dies -- Davida asserts her independence even as congregational intrigues threaten to unseat her mother.

But there is renewal in love as the story concludes in a spirit of conciliation and joy. That joy is conveyed exceptionally well by Ms. Mangram's leads and the gospel choir that accompanies them.

Schatar Sapphira does beautifully as Sister Margaret, the pastor who found her way in life only after wrenching herself away from the husband who loved her. Ms. Sapphira is fun to watch early on, but when she cuts loose emotionally in her penultimate song, "Love Dies Hard," her voice and her tears movingly convey the catharsis that has taken place.

The pastor is ably supported by her sister, Odessa, played by Deseree Herring. Ms. Herring joins a long line of Pamoja actresses who've been blessed with tremendous singing voices.

Comic relief is provided by the adorably feisty Nancy Gist, a retired Anne Arundel County educator and former member of the Board of Education. She is a howl as Sister Moore, the church elder who talks hilariously, no matter which side of her mouth she's talking out of.

The biggest surprise of the production is the appearance of T. G. Cooper as the long-lost husband. "Amen Corner" marks his debut as a singer, and he does quite well! Sunday evening produced a few missed lighting cues, muffed lyrics and iffy harmonies but, by and large, Ms. Mangram has the trains running on time.

Let us also acknowledge the joyful noise made by music director Valerie Cooper's gospel choir anchored by Betsy Pindell, whose rich, full voice makes me feel like a rank amateur.

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