The first of two plays written by the novelist and essayist James Baldwin — revived here by director Rufus Norris in a version gorgeously saturated with gospel music — was penned in the knowledge that religion was a refuge for his fellow African Americans. For them, opportunities to be anything other than an unskilled labourer were practically non-existent.
Baldwin’s heroine is single mother Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the pious preacher of the Harlem church where all the action takes place. This is where Margaret and her congregation can escape the injustices of a white-ruled world.
It is 1953. Things have changed a little since then. So the fervour of a play whose characters greet each other with “praise the Lord”, and the religiosity that has dominated Margaret’s every thought and action ever since she and her baby boy left her hard-drinking husband, come across as a pointed rebuke against blind religious faith.
In fact, The Amen Corner even serves as a particularly powerful attack on religion when it is dominated by the religious, or at least the pious. And there is no one more pious than the virginal Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble) who, as she puts it, “ain’t questioning the Lord’s way. He done kept me pure to Himself for a purpose.” In Sister Moore’s case, that purpose appears to be to replace Sister Margaret as pastor.
Spite and ambition is fine if it is God’s will. The return of Margaret’s dissolute jazz musician Luke (Lucian Msamati) is proof enough to Sister Moore and her fellow scheming congregants that God no longer loves Sister Margaret the way he used to. When Luke knew her she was just “funny, fiery, fast-talking Maggie”. Now she is no fun at all.
A bit like the word of God, Baldwin’s message is open to interpretation. But Norris’s production lends the piece extra force through the power of gospel. And in the more tender moments, Norris modulates the mood with the use of a soulful jazz trio, just visible through the church windows of Ian MacNeil’s two-tier design.
Jean-Baptiste charismatically captures the persuasive powers of a pastor in full evangelical flow, melding them beautifully with a more vulnerable introspection when away from the pulpit. Sharon D Clarke as her sister Odessa is wonderfully poised, while Noble combines attitude and piety as Margaret’s formidable usurper. The terrific Msamati also deserves a mention and, in the prayer scenes, there is a chorus mighty enough to raise the rafters and almost make a Jewish atheist praise the Lord.