Will surprises never cease? Not only was I shocked to see the National producing a play by James Baldwin – someone I thought I’d never get to see in the UK – but then I was offered a complimentary ticket (though for a preview show). And it had finally started acting like summer (or late spring) as the sun had been shining for two days straight. WAS THE WORLD COMING TO AN END?
Clearly, it must have been: after struggling through one overblown, over-designed, overly sincere play after another in the Olivier, Amen Corner was (dare I say it) that rare ray of sunshine, a show that is a genuine pleasure to watch. Sure, the play dealt with racism (deeply embedded in American society in the 1930s) and sexism (a woman running a church was actually a big deal, but not so unbelievable that Baldwin didn’t feel comfortable putting Sister Margaret – Marianne Jean-Baptiste – in charge), but it was at its heart about people – about family relationships, power struggles, and the desire to make something out of our lives. I was afraid it was going to be too much about religion, but instead of idolizing or mocking the evangelical Christians who formed the core of this play’s characters, it showed them both as fallible and questioning – not on a pedestal but not objects of ridicule. And in a world where religion has become even more polarizing over the last decade, I found it heartwarming that a playwright from my country could both accept that people could be deeply religious and that people could be anti-religious, and both points of view had merit – that ultimately it was up to each person to choose a path that works for them, just as David (Margaret’s son, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa) does.
I enjoyed this play both as a celebration of the values I see as being American – primarily, that of tolerance – and of a facet of American culture (the Harlem renaissance, and the black culture that flourished in the age of segregation) that I have never seen on stage. Maybe Baldwin made it a little sweeter than it was in reality, but I enjoyed seeing any of it. I also enjoyed greatly the music that the director used to help create a sense of the place and the religious environment – as did the member of the audience sat next to me, mouthing the words as the congregation on stage sang one after another gospel standard. Man, did that make the Olivier come alive! And I don’t know if it was the music or the topic or if maybe the National reached out to different groups to make sure there were nice full houses for the previews, but looking around the auditorium, I saw that, for once, the audience at the National was looking a whole lot less like the cultural monotony normally seen there and a lot more like the multicultural palette that is London. It supported my theory that if you want to diversity your audience, try diversifying what stories you’re telling.
While the acting was still a bit clunky in places, the movement was generally smooth and I expect that as this cooks down through the last few previews, it’s going to come out of the oven even tastier. I feel a bit like Eric Kofi Abrefa may have been just a bit too old to play an 18 year old, but Marianne Jean-Baptiste was vibrant in her role, while Cecilia Noble was deliciously over the top as Sister Moore. What I wouldn’t give to see the whole kit and caboodle reunited for School of Scandal! Ah, well, maybe when the new artistic director comes in. Meanwhile, we’ve got months of Amen Corner to enjoy, and I both predict and hope for full houses for this Travellex sponsored (and thus affordable) show.
(This review is for a first preview that took place on Tuesday, June 4th, 2013. It continues until August 14th.)