The Amen Corner

Amen_CornerThe Amen Corner by James Baldwin at National Theatre, London, 14th August 2013

‘I’m Not Tired’   (Quotation from the music used for The Amen Corner)

 Praise the Lord’, the National Theatre continues to surprise and engage audiences with culturally diverse plays and all-black casting. Rufus Norris’s revival of James Baldwin’s 1965 gospel drama was certainly good news which also dispelled any prejudices I have ever had about being subjected to a musical.

The first ten minutes are disquietingly invigorating yet devotional for a non-Christian audience. The visceral gospel singing by the rightly acclaimed London Community Gospel Choir quickly immerses us into the emotional complexity of a Pentecostal corner church community in 1950s. Its pastor, Sister Margaret (brilliantly delivered by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) drives the simple plot. Her relentless, uncompromising sermonising both unifies the community and divides them.

It is not long before Margaret is confronted by the unexpected arrival of her long estranged husband, Luke, who falls ill.  We quickly learn that she misled her congregation to believe that he had abandoned her and their son years ago when in fact, she had left him. Her lies undermine Margaret’s integrity and her vulnerability unfolds tragically over a week of family drama and church politics.

Although rather crude, parallel musical score of voices identifies key matriarchal members of the gossipy congregation. At one end of the scale, we find the sonorous stability of Sharon D Clarke as Margaret’s loyal sister, Odessa. At the other end are the viperous notes of Cecilia Noble’s, Sister Moore, who schemes against Margaret. Through the latter’s subversive actions, Baldwin exposes the hypocrisy of the church.

Positioning the church on an upper level in relation to the apartment is symbolic of the dominant role of the church in family life. It is an institution which also provides shelter from the shadow of poverty and racism.

The irony then is that Baldwin repeatedly uses the word ‘black’ to mean ‘wicked’ and his message is relentlessly moralistic.  Finally, we are left with an emptiness: the church no longer delivers a strong moral sense of duty to the community, but a distorted, corrosive sense of mutual faith and trust in God.

Although the plot line is fairly thin and at times, melodramatic, the combination of a strong cast and production underpinned by the rousing gospel music guarantees a worthy standing ovation.