The world of The Amen Corner is a curious one. Considering it’s set in 1953 in amongst a Harlem black community everything seems, well, a little too idyllic. In the outside world Eisenhauer is president and change is coming but for now civil unrest is rife. By contrast – in the world of the play – we see a community who, when not in church for impromptu prayer meetings and gossip sessions, are loitering in the windows of the tenements that frame Ian MacNeil’s set. And all this is offset by cool jazz and uplifting gospel music.
But behind this comfortable veneer there are hints of a darker world. We hear a little about segregated life, about work in service for the white man (more suggested, than implicit). The story though takes us in a different direction, exploring instead parent and child relationships, personal tragedies, religious struggle and hypocrisy.
‘where’s the Holy Ghost gone? / I don’t know mem, I don’t know. If a person don’t feel it , he just don’t feel it no more’
Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is pastor of a lively religious community. A single mum she is as equally possessive of her son (David played by Eric Kofi Abrefa) as she is of God. David though has other things on his mind. A talented musician (he leads the Church band, much to his mothers pride) he’s discovered both jazz and his estranged father playing trombone in a downtown club. The reappearance of his dad (Lucian Msamati as Luke) begins to raise uneasy questions and difficult feelings for Sister Margaret. The church community too – led by the seemingly angelic Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble who sanctimoniously dominates proceedings when she’s on stage)
‘no man has ever touched me, Alleluia’
start having their own questions. What starts as curiosity becomes outright mutiny.
As far as I can recall this was the first time I’d been to the National to see a show with an all black cast. The strong ensemble gave the piece an air of joyous celebration which was met with whoops of delight (not the usual restrained National audience for this show!) from an increasingly receptive crowd. Lines like:-
‘Everytime there’s a woman not knowing whether she is coming or going there is a man sleeping somewhere in the next room’
Were met with the kind of cheers which suggested we, as an audience, were almost willing ourselves onto the stage.
That sense of exuberance runs into the music.
And though we never get to see the contrast between the church and the seedy jazz club, we certainly feel it. Virtually everything is underscored either with celebratory Gospel music (enhanced by the presence of the London Community Choir) and 1950’s jazz (composed and dominated by Byron Wallen’s soaring trumpet). It leads to some very moving moments; so as Sister Margaret prepares to enter the lions den of her revolting community we hear the very same community singing the most beautiful, plaintif refrain. A lullaby for her end?
But I have to admit to remaining curiously unengaged and unmoved. The trouble, I think, with the Amen Corner was not the context, its setting, the music nor the performances. Simply the play never became more than the sum of its constituent parts. For all the exuberance of the music the exposition in Act I feels slow and ponderous and the pay off in Act II does not really come to fruition.
‘the truth is a double edged sword / well it aint ever going to cut you down, You ‘aint ever gonna get that close’
The production feels bigger than the play itself. Despite the poignant ending (where we watch Sister Margaret loose all that is valuable to her) I found myself not really caring for what happened to any of the principles on the much referenced last day.
Except, perhaps, for Ida Jackson who we earlier saw distraught asking Sister Margaret to explain why God had taken the life of her small child. As the lights fade on the final scene director Rufus Norris draws our attention to Ida rekindling her love for her husband in a tenement window. Maybe there is hope after all!
[I should add I appear to be in a minority – not only in the audience – but also of reviewers. Here is The Guardian’s **** review, and then the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer who goes one better – *****. Go! demands The Independents Paul Taylor .]