sun 23/11/2014

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

Home again: Marianne Jean-Baptiste returns to the London stage as James Baldwin's fallen pastorSeamus Ryan

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. 

Jacqueline Boatswain and Sharon D Clarke in The Amen CornerThat 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.

Rufus Norris has imbued his production with a populist energy that owes much to the onstage presence atop Ian MacNeil's set of the London Community Gospel Choir

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