The Amen Corner plays out to sound of gospel music

national theatre

national theatre - Credit: Archant

The Amen Corner

National Theatre

James Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner (1954) explores the conflict between religion and real-life. It places a pastor, Sister Margaret, between her family and flock and forces her to choose. Is it possible to love God and mankind with equal fervour?

These questions are asked against a lush backdrop of gospel music, composed by Tim Sutton. With the supreme London Community Gospel Choir hovering in the wings, this is a production always on the verge of song.

Director Rufus Norris has weaved the sumptuous soundtrack deep into the fabric of this play. Songs come as naturally as speech. Gospel music saturates the sermons – but it also rises up in Margaret’s kitchen, bedroom, in front of the fridge and pretty much anywhere where there are people.

Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) leaps about wildly, as if balancing on hot coals, as she leads her chorus in song. But while music holds together Margaret’s sermons, it is also tearing apart her family. Margaret’s son might play piano in her Harlem church but his real devotion is to his band and to his girlfriend.

When Margaret’s estranged husband Luke (Lucian Msamati) returns home – burnt out by a life playing music in crummy bars – this conflict between religion and music, spirituality and soul, opens wider still.

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Msamati, last seen in a fun but flippant role in Comedy of Errors, captivates as dissolute husband Luke.

His scenes blaze with truth and heart. He speaks to his son with beautiful clarity: “Music is joy. But it ain’t kissing.” He speaks to his wife with passionate defiance: “Stop talking about my soul!”

The comedy hits hard, too. Cecilia Noble is as frightening as she is funny, as the breathy-voiced and two-faced Sister Moore. Sharon D Clarke, as the pastor’s sister, is gifted some brilliant one-liners. As the play rumbles to a close, Clarke delivers this blinding home truth: “Every time there’s a woman swelled up with grief, there’s a man close by.” Amen to that!

Until August 14.