Since kicking off The Shed’s inaugural season directing Tanya Ronder’s Table, Rufus Norris has returned to the National Theatre’s largest auditorium with this beautifully staged production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner.
The Go Tell It On A Mountain writer’s theatrical debut is, like his hugely successful novel, set in 1950s Harlem and explores the role of Christianity within the religious African American community, focusing on church pastor Margaret as her life is turned upside down by the return of her estranged husband Luke, now battling tuberculosis.
While the congregation previously believed that it was Luke who instigated the end of their marriage, his return brings with it the truth, a truth considered so outrageous by members of the church community that they gang up against their preacher in a united determination to oust her from her religious duties.
Through Ian MacNeil’s split-level set, the audience gains access to both their place of worship and Margaret’s living quarters, a space that she shares with her sister Odessa and son David. While upstairs the congregation’s praising of the lord proves as raucous as some of Gatsby’s parties, downstairs the familial struggles and emotional burdens of Margaret are laid bare in touching clarity.
Norris’ tight direction draws energy and enthusiasm from each of the talented cast members. Cecilia Noble gives a stand-out performance as Sister Moore, a woman outraged by the sins of others but unable to see her own; her comic dancing often forming the centrepiece of church gatherings, but remains unable to conceal her two-faced insincerity.
Lucian Msamati brings an element of cheekiness to his portrayal of Luke, whose refreshing cheerfulness and charm never quite gives into his declining health. Sharon D Clarke bestows Odessa with a feisty and witty attitude as she faithfully stands up for her sister, while Marianne Jean-Baptiste is both venomous and vulnerable as Margaret; outbursts of wounding abuse aimed at her rebellious son morphing into moments of heart-breaking tenderness at the painful realisation that she never stopped loving her husband.
The evening is laced with a sense of overwhelming sadness, but the uplifting songs – delivered with such beautiful harmonies by the flawless cast and London Community Gospel Choir – fill the Olivier auditorium with an infectious warmth that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.