By William Wolf


It’s the closest thing to a written guarantee. When one goes to see a production at Britain’s National Theatre, one can expect quality, and the deal has been upheld impressively with the production of “The Amen Corner,” a revived play by the late American author James Baldwin.

His work, written in 1954, was staged on Broadway in 1965 and adapted into a Broadway musical in 1983. The new National Theatre production, exquisitely directed by Rufus Norris, has used gospel singing prominently and impressively (by the London Community Gospel Choir) as emphasis in adhering to the tense dramatic structure. Praise is due set designer Ian MacNeil for the split level set geared to both the private struggles and the Baptist church fireworks in the tale Baldwin created about African-American life in Harlem and to the many who had a hand in the expert production.

The play reflects the demons and experiences that fueled Baldwin’s life as a novelist and playwright, and he succeeded in realizing flesh and blood characters locked in moral, spiritual and personal battle. The cast assembled for this production brilliantly brings them to life, especially in the dazzling performance by Marianne Jean-Baptiste in the lead role of Margaret Alexander, a woman consumed by her religious beliefs and fervor and occupying a leadership position in her church prayer. On the one hand she is arrogantly demanding toward her community of worshipers. But in her personal life, in which she attempts to carry out the principles of her religious righteousness and impose them on her family, she is brought painfully face to face with earthy reality.

Margaret is confronted by the return of her ill husband, who had wandered about as a jazz musician, and their son, who is straining to break from his mother’s grasp and go off on an independent, religion-free path to follow his own musical yearnings. Margaret does not want to let go. Simultaneously she is faced with a revolt of her congregation that has tired of her domination and self-righteousness.

Baldwin’s play builds dramatic power by posing basic questions of what is important in life, resulting in a face-off between religious passion and human relationships, with a moving conclusion that personal love, compassion and intimacy are what really matter most. There are powerful, deeply moving scenes expressing this, with the all-around level of great acting that profoundly involves an audience.

But the play, as staged in this production, also stresses lively elements of humor via the depiction of the character assortment and the fulfillment of the portrayals. The canvas here is broad and director Norris has shown a grasp of the basic elements and the way in which humor permeates even the solemn aspects of life. The gospel singing provides an accompanying beat. Anyone who has ever attended such church services will recognize the role such sing-along testimony plays.

The staging of this drama has been important with respect to reviewing Baldwin’s work, which sort of disappeared after being fashionable during the turbulent civil rights era in America, and it is good to have “The Amen Corner” resurrected as a reminder of his breakthrough talent that helped characterize the literary period in which attention was paid to African-American writers who expressed struggles to define their lives in terms of history and battles that had to be fought, personally and politically.

A service was done in the program for the play, in which comments by Baldwin were reproduced, revealing his thoughts about his craft and his life. These writings provide context for his art and for the meanings he has attempted to instill in his work. His words make one contemplate what this sensitive and rebellious author endured, and certainly justify this new exploration, as the revival of “The Amen Corner” has prompted.

It would be a boon if this production could be brought to the United States, especially with this cast and the rousing performance by Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Reviewed at the National Theatre, London. Posted August 6, 2013.


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