By James Baldwin
The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX
To August 14
"I left because I was driven out, because my homeland would not allow me to grow in the only direction in which I could grow."
So said James Baldwin, African American author of Go Tell It on The Mountain, of his reasons for leaving America at the tender age of 24. And so these themes of isolation and displacement resonate powerfully and relentlessly in Rufus Norris' current production of The Amen Corner, into which Baldwin poured all of his expatriate and existentialist angst.
Set in an evangelical church in 1950s Harlem, the play portrays the struggles of 'Sister' Margaret Alexander, the church's severe pastor, from tireless leader at the heart of her community delivering sermons about the evils of alcohol and jazz clubs to tragic heroine confronting the demons of her past and a life based on deception.
From the opening scene, in which the cast belt out a soulful number with the London Community Gospel Choir, the play is underpinned with a rich musicality that threads the narrative together, often uniting characters, obscuring the significance of certain moments for others, and finally intensifying the dark tragedy and emptiness we are left with at the end. One can sense the early gospel influence on Baldwin juxtaposed with the jazz about which he was so passionate, furtively snaking its way through the communal chorus symbolizing freedom of expression.
The set is meticulously designed by Ian MacNeil, immersing you in austere spirituality while cleverly employing a two-level stage with the interior of the church above Margaret's apartment, conveying the oppressive nature of religion. It becomes a visual metaphor adding to the pathos at the end, showing the stark opposition between unquestioning faith and wretched grief.
The acting is superb, Marianne Jean-Baptiste playing Sister Margaret with such tightly contained energy simmering beneath her persona as spiritual leader that we know immediately that this is an individual who fights a constant, passionate internal conflict. There is a riveting physical ferocity about Jean-Baptiste's performance that induces fear, at times contempt, and ultimately a wellspring of deeply felt pity for the way in which this character becomes persecuted.
Lucian Msamati is in turns mischievously ribald and paternally nurturing as her estranged jazz musician husband, while Eric Kofi Abrefa captures with beautiful clarity the tumultuous internal conflict with which David, Margaret's 18 year old son, struggles, negotiating between duty and ambition. It is a strong and inspired performance from such a young actor, in which he uses a restless physicality to show us an individual grappling with an ever more constrained existence and an ever increasing desire to free himself.
My only slight misgivings center on Cecilia Noble's sweetly sycophantic, two-faced Sister Moore. Noble is obviously a gifted character actor, with a uniquely throaty, high-pitched delivery, but she does play every line for great, big, hearty belly laughs. Much of the action requires this sort of hamming, but there were moments I felt like Noble could have done with toning down, as it threatened to undercut the tension of some parts and over-conditioned the audience to laugh irritatingly at inappropriate moments.
None of this mars the fact that at the end, we are left with a devastating and cleansing catharsis in an absorbing and phenomenal night of theater that should not be missed.