Culture: Theatre

Beige Review: The Amen Corner

The Amen Corner

James Baldwin’s 1954 play The Amen Corner tackles the holy trinity of religion, hypocrisy and racial prejudice in an African-American setting.

The Olivier Theatre was filled with the beautiful harmonies of the London Community Gospel Choir, replicating the church in Harlem.

The star of the show, and no doubt the reason why many people came to see Baldwin’s little-known play is Marianne Jean-Baptiste. The actress is a lead character of American drama Without a Trace. In fact, the gentleman sitting in front of me said he was there precisely because he was a fan of Jean-Baptiste. So who says popular culture is destroying the upper echelons of the arts?

The 46-year-old actress plays the lead role of Sister Margaret, the charismatic pastor of a Harlem church. She sings well, although not quite as powerfully as the members of the London Community Gospel Choir.

And she is in fine form, full of energy, bouncing around the stage, praising Jesus and all the saints with evangelical zeal. Even committed atheists, such as myself, felt strangely stirred. And if there was such a church around the corner, I’d be tempted to visit.

However, even the deeply devout Sister Margaret has secrets and her hypocrisy seeps out, revealing her to be a sanctimonious do-gooder with precious little compassion.

The pastor won’t allow one of her congregation to become the driver of a liquor van. Even her love for David (Eric Kofi Abrefa), her teenage son, is possessive and overbearing. He wants to play jazz – obviously the Devil’s music – whereas Sister Margaret wants him to become her lifelong companion as she spreads the word of the Lord.

Even worse, Sister Margaret’s long-lost husband Luke (Lucian Msamati) appears back on the scene, dying of TB.

The truth comes out that far from Luke abandoning his wife and child for a life of debauchery, Margaret left her husband to take up the embrace of the Holy Spirit and become a woman preacher.

These are the most touching and terrifying scenes in the play – where Luke appeals to Margaret – in between racking coughing fits, to remember the love they once shared. She rebuffs him with a curt put-down: “You’re gonna die, Luke!”

Baldwin draws from his own life’s experiences, which is why the play has an authentic voice and sizzles with tension.

The playwright’s stepfather died of tuberculosis and at the age of 14, Baldwin joined the Pentecostal Church and became a preacher.

Like David in The Amen Corner, Baldwin was torn by wanting a different kind of life.

He had to emigrate to Paris in order to re-invent himself as a writer as well as come to terms with being gay. Luckily he succeeded, as Baldwin was able to write Giovanni’s Room, his second novel, which stirred controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content.

Stealing the show is the very talented Cecilia Noble, who plays Sister Moore, Sister Margaret’s closest friend and enemy, who, “ain’t never been sweet on no man but the Lord Jesus Christ”.

A funny, witty and lively performance by a strong cast,  and especially good to see an all-black cast taking the National Theatre stage as if to the manor born.

The Amen Corner is on at the National Theatre until 14 August 2013.

Words: Fiona Keating

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