American James Baldwin (1924-87) was a multi-talented writer producing, over the course of his career, essays, novels and poems and the odd play besides. 'The Amen Corner' was his first play (published in 1954), and it is largely based on his own experiences. At the age of just 14 he joined the Pentecostal Church and became a preacher in his own right – drawing larger crowds than other ministers much older than himself. But at the age of 17, he became disillusioned with both the church and Christianity, and turned his attention to writing.
This play is set in Harlem in 1953 and covers a period of just 8 days. Margaret Alexander (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the pastor of a small church in Harlem. The members of her congregation are poor, but turn-up each Sunday in their best clothes and hats to sing their throats hoarse in praise of the Lord. Margaret lives with her son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and her sister Odessa (Sharon D Clarke). David is a gifted pianist and is studying in music school. He plays the piano for his mother's services and seems tied to both the church and his mother. At the beginning of the play, we witness one of Margaret's church services where all seems in harmony. However, trouble is brewing as some of the elders of the church start raising questions about how Margaret spends the collection money, and where she managed to find the cash for her new 'frigidaire'. Later, Margaret's estranged husband, Luke, fetches up and we learn how personal tragedy brought Margaret to leave her husband because “they were too happy”.
Music figures prominently in Rufus Norris's compelling and thought-provoking production and it is all terrific stuff. The powerful, uplifting singing is supplied by the London Community Gospel Choir, and there is haunting accompaniment from Tim Sutton on piano and Joseph Roberts on bass, with spine-tingling trumpet playing from Byron Wallen.
Marianne Jeanne-Baptiste is in the lead as the controlling and initially dogmatic Margaret, but she is almost eclipsed by Cecilia Noble who more or less steals the show as Sister Moore. A seemingly devout Christian and a woman 'untouched' by any man, Ms Noble's Sister Moore provides much amusement for the audience through both her comments and mannerisms, but she also shows she is not above stirring-up trouble and planting dissenting seeds against her pastor. There is great support here from the entire company, and especially from Sharon D Clarke as the loyal and stalwart Odessa, and Eric Kofi Abrefa as David, a young man determined to make a life for himself outside of the church.
On the face of it, one could easily categorise 'The Amen Corner' as being anti-religious, but I don't think that was James Baldwin's stance – even given his own disenchantment with Christianity. What he shows us is that people have needs and wants, and these have to be satisfied – and in this life, not the next. As one character puts it: “We gotta eat”. So, when Margaret dictates that one of her congregation should not earn good money driving a liquor truck, we see religion preventing those needs being met, and it is no surprise that it causes resentment and, ultimately, Margaret's downfall. However, it's not just about nickels and dimes. David heads-off to play in a jazz band because he wants to discover his own identity - 'to become a man'. Here, James Baldwin's play provides an insight into his own character and motivations. But he also gave us an insider's view of church life and the inevitable conflicts between being a good Christian and being able to survive the harsh, economic realities of life. It is just a pity that Mr Baldwin didn't feel able to include more of his own story – his role as a teenage pastor, for example - because I suspect that would have provided additional dimensions and fascinating revelations. Nevertheless, this is a well-written, stimulating drama which is ably described here in a hugely appealing and entertaining revival.
"It is a work and a production full of humour but it is also deeply moving as it shows how faith can cause pain as well as joy, and the way those who praise God most passionately can be every bit as cruel and devious as those they denounce as sinners...It's a thrilling evening in which joy, pain laughter and glorious singing are inextricably intertwined. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"There is plenty of humour with the bitchy church politics...interesting show."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Magnificently staged by Rufus Norris."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"The performances deserve to be savoured, and Jean-Baptiste is outstanding.."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Such a deeply affecting occasion. The humanity and humour of the writing glow...Marianne Jean-Baptiste turns in a magnificent performance as Sister Margaret Alexander."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"A breathtakingly fine production that achieves pure theatrical poetry in its fluid blend of song and speech."
Michael Billington for The Guardian