Directed by the award winning Rufus Norris, The Amen Corner at The National’s Olivier Theatre centres on Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a hard-line Harlem preacher whose carefully guarded world falls apart over the course of one turbulent week. James Baldwin’s play, written and set in 1950s Black America opens with a stirring chorus reaching a crescendo as Sister Margaret’s congregation fills the poverty-stricken Pentecostal church. Sister Margaret’s dogmatic Sunday sermon is delivered with several of the central characters showcasing their exceptional singing voices. It is clear from the start the audience are in for an electric, gospel filled treat.
The play progresses with the return of Sister Margaret’s jazz playing, hard drinking husband Luke (Lucian Msamati) which signals the increasing waywardness of her son, David (Eric Kofi Abrefa), as he struggles with his disillusionment in the church. Luke’s presence, TB addled and unrepentant, forces Sister Margaret to confront the secrets of her past under the watchful gaze of her congregation. Comic relief is provided by the viciously virginal Sister Moore, played by the excellent Cecilia Noble, and by Brother Boxer, (Donovan F Blackwood) as mounting suspicions over Sister Margaret’s hypocrisy divides her flock.
Cynicism and secrecy hang heavily as the first act draws to a close, yet it is Luke’s beautifully delivered arguments that give this play true depth and complexity. The play ends with a surge in rhetoric losing only some of its fierce drive towards the climax.
This is an emotionally charged play which covers many profound issues during its lengthy running time. Themes of community, faith, love and loss are covered beautifully with dialogue dragging in only a few places. Well staged and brilliantly directed, there were few flaws in this performance. Punchy, spirited performances were given by its cast, with stand-out performances by Lucian Msamati (Luke) and Sharon D Clarke as the Odessa, whose staged presence and mellifluous voice is worth the admission price alone.