National Theatre, London
Written by James Baldwin
Directed by Rufus Norris
The Amen Corner at the National Theatre is a remarkable comment upon the lives of an African American community in 1953 Harlem. Rufus Norris’ interpretation of James Baldwin's play with music weaves a beautiful gospel lilt upon this scrutiny of a small church, its pastor, her family and the community elders. Whilst never leaving the claustrophobic confines of the church and Pastor Margaret Alexander's modest apartment, Baldwin dares to question the duplicity of religious fervour and amidst a background of a nascent Civil Rights push and with an all black cast, shows that hatred exists everywhere, not just amongst racist white folk.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is Margaret. A single mother who following the infant death of her first child fled the the errant ways of Luke her alcoholic musician husband, gathering up her young son and donning the cloth as pastor to a committed if somewhat cynical city flock. Margaret's commitment to her faith is unquestioning. She makes decisions that are at times unpalatable, and Jean-Baptiste embodies her with such subtlety and also such passion, that we come to discover that in her world, faith has a dark side. It has provided her with a mechanism to deny much of life's ugliness and pain and further, Baldwin suggests that it has also served as a possible opiate to too many of the black community, dulling any sense of justified rebellion against the appalling racism that they were subject to through much of the 20th century,
Sharon D Clarke is Margaret's wise all seeing sister Odessa. Clarke is surely the grand-dame (and one day a deserved Dame?) of Britain's black acting community. Her fierceness combined with a compassionate protection of her sibling, offers a supporting role of strength and beauty whilst less well known Cecilia Noble turns in another masterful performance as a church elder who slowly sheds her early comic turn of virginity and bible bashing faux-purity, to reveal a malevolence of hatred and bitterness.
A surprise return of the estranged and dying Luke (Lucian Msamati) to the apartment questions all that Margaret has sought to hold dear for many years, and whilst Luke's lifestyle of wine, women and sin is anathema to the pastor, he provides the inspiration to their 18 year old musician son David, (yet another cracking performance, this time from newcomer Eric Kofi Abrefa) to quit the ghetto, free his spirit and make strides that are clearly signalled will influence the burgeoning demands of the Civil Rights movement.
Baldwin's writing is poetically profound and searching. If Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman highlighted the creaking gaps and flaws in the American Dream, then take the image of that play’s broken Willy Loman, re-write him as an African American woman and there emerges a strong argument to suggest that Margaret Alexander's story is as harsh a take on the realities of the black community’s strengths and battles as well as its flaws and failings.
The musical background to the work is impressive. The London Community Gospel Choir adding melodic brilliance to the The Reverend Bazil Meades arrangements, whilst Ian MacNeil's detailed set, split to show both church and apartment is another example of the timeless versatility of the Olivier stage. The final scene of passionate but cruelly heartless communal gospel singing, contrasted with Margaret's grief as she confronts her devastating personal loss, will break your heart.