The Amen Corner, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
The Amen Corner, National Theatre
James Baldwin's seminal drama sings out anew on the South Bank
Oh, how the mighty are fallen. Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a storefront pastor in Harlem who leads her flock with absolutist conviction. No drinking, no smoking - the way to the Lord is through abstinence and clean living, and she herself embodies these righteous goals. So woe betide Sister Margaret when her far from clean-living ex-husband, a musician called Luke (Lucian Msamati), arrives at her door after many years.
His appearance proves the catalyst for Sister Margaret's downfall in James Baldwin's influential debut play: a fall from grace which, in Rufus Norris's expansive, gospel-driven National Theatre production, is celebrated rather than mourned by fellow congregant, Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble). "Up above my head there is music in the air, fills the Olivier auditorium while Sister Margaret lies, pietà-like and broken, in the arms of her blood sister, Odessa (Sharon D Clarke, pictured below with Jacqueline Boatswain: photograph by Richard Hubert Smith). Revenge has come for a community of souls who have felt patronised by a self-styled paragon now fallen to earth.
That even the most dogmatic moralist is prone to flesh-and-blood failings - and Sister Margaret's "conversion" arose out of a very human sense of grief at a stillborn child rather than any spiritual "vision" - is clearly part of the message. Baldwin's play, written in 1954, famously played the Tricycle Theatre in 1987, transferring to Shaftesbury Avenue as the first black non-musical to play the West End - where it then promptly lost its investment.
Hopefully, this revival will have a happier fate. Norris has certainly imbued his Travelex production with a populist energy that owes much to the onstage presence atop Ian MacNeil's set of the London Community Gospel Choir, who underline strategic points in Sister Margaret's journey. The singing, too, is quite wonderful, even if it threatens at times to overwhelm a narrative whose emotional pillars reside in poverty and deprivation.
Written with a naturalistic eloquence and passion that prefigures Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson's epic cycle of African-American plays spanning the entire 20th century, Baldwin's play balances Sister Margaret's faltering religiosity with the story of her budding jazz musician son, David (Eric Kofi Abrefa, pictured alongside Msamati as his father), soon to fly the coop. (The role is surely an authorial self-portrait.) Personal battles, both petty and profound, are seen to rage, none more wrenching than David's separation from home, hearth, and church.
Returning to London from her more recent home in LA, Secrets and Lies' co-star (and onetime Oscar nominee) Jean-Baptiste cuts a diminutive yet commandingly fervent figure, and she is complemented by the impressive Clarke's compassionate Odessa. But this is altogether an ensemble of equals: Baldwin's song never rang out so sweetly.
- The Amen Corner is at the National Theatre
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
A bit of everything in theartsdesk's stage tips
Dromgoole lets the light into Shakespeare's darkest comedy in this new production
This affectionate production of a classic does what it says on the tin
Bold and technically dazzling, the energy of Marc Rees’ Patagonian tale flags too often
Playwright Shaun Kitchener and director Harry Burton discuss their new production at the Park Theatre
Richard Jones, Nick Gill and Rory Kinnear turn the dramatic screw on Kafka's nightmare story
The epic story of Welsh Patagonia finds Wales's two national theatres collaborating
Strikingly staged Chekhov continues a strong season in the park
Successful transfer to stage for feelgood show
Tim Crouch's experimental meditation on performance is indelibly powerful
Topical and thought-provoking child neglect play is hampered by sensational twists
Stephen Adly Guirgis's Broadway hit is entertaining if a bit too studied in its UK debut