Occasionally reviews can (and should) be simple. Like simply saying “go and watch this”. Not because there is nothing else to say but because the message needs to be loud and clear and not get lost among convoluted comments and explanations. James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre is one of those productions.
James Baldwin’s play, taking place in an African-American community in Harlem after World War II, addresses questions of god, love, desire, gossip, human weakness, poverty, music and the shadow of racial prejudice in the early 1950s. It could have been dry, confusing, overambitious. Instead, as directed by Rufus Norris in an exquisite production, it’s effortlessly poignant. It’s life, not as we know it, but as some people did, and it cuts like a knife.
From a universally excellent cast, some characters stand out: Sharon D Clarke’s Odessa is a woman of unforgettable empathy and presence. Lucian Msamati as Luke gives a performance of recklessness and instinctive wisdom. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s David balances energy, fire and sensuality with fear and hesitation. And of course, Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Margaret is a woman of uncompromising beauty: uncompromising in her faith and calling, but also in her doubt and fall.
The set – a church hall and a house, in two levels and visible at the same time – is unchanging but full of character and life. In fact, it’s rare that a production feels so at home at the vast Olivier stage.
Finally the music: the characters sing gospel like they breath. Music is a necessity, somewhere between air and food.
If you got that far with the review, go back to the beginning. Go and watch this. There is little else to say.