7 June 2013
The return of the great British actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste in a fine revival of James Baldwin’s play Amen Corner makes me (almost) want to exclaim “Praise the Lord!”
One of the limitations of the London theatre scene is that it tends towards white, middle-class-friendly material, usually drawn from the English theatrical tradition, which inevitably attracts audiences from a similar demographic. Despite a recent trend in colour-blind casting, mostly in the subsidised companies like the National Theatre, the numbers of non-white actors appearing in mainstream theatre, particularly in the classical repertoire, is remarkably low.
Which is why the National Theatre’s new production of James Baldwin’s play Amen Corner is such a blast to the senses in all directions, featuring an all-black cast and showcasing the work of one of America’s best-known black writers. This production features a fantastic lead performance by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the co-lead from Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, who’s performing in the UK after a decade-long period of working in America. Her casting feels like a coup and a somewhat belated correction of the “whitewashing” of British theatre. In 1997, Jean-Baptiste took the British film industry to task after being left off a list of young actors invited to represent British film at the Cannes Film Festival, (where Secrets and Lies had won the Palme d’Or only the previous year). In an open letter to the Guardian, she accused “the old men running the industry” of not having a clue: “They’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Britain is no longer a totally white place where people ride horses, wear long frocks and drink tea,” she argued. “The national dish is no longer fish and chips, it’s curry.”
There’s very little fish and chips or curry on display in Amen Corner, which is about as American as it gets. But thank God that the National managed to lure Jean-Baptiste back for this one. Set in 1950s Harlem, Amen Corner tells the heated, emotionally intense tale of a Sister Margaret (Jean-Baptiste), a middle-aged female pastor of a small evangelical congregation struggling with her long-estranged alcoholic husband who’s turned up after a long absence, seriously unwell, their teenage son David who wants to abandon the church and become a jazz musician, and her fractious congregation who may want to unseat her. It’s a role that feels tailor-made to Jean-Baptiste’s strengths. Though she’s tiny in person, she’s got a monumental strength and stillness, and fights her corner like a grizzled prizefighter. She’s also got a glorious voice, and leads the rest of the wonderful cast in some rousing, toe-tapping and deeply moving gospel numbers through the show.
Amen Corner is an amazing piece of writing, lyrical and angry by turns, in which Baldwin spells out the intractable messiness of life as he knew it – a black man living in a racist society, a former child preacher struggling with adult sexual attraction, and the member of a closely-knit community where he’ll never quite fit in. The play reminded me in tone and ferocity of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Williams and Baldwin were contemporaries, friends and drinking buddies, and in many ways feel like mirror images of each other: both born dirt poor, both gay and burdened with sexual guilt and a need to perform their sexuality, both writers of great lyricism and fierce anger, both inexorably committed to their roles as outsiders within bands of outsiders, and neither much interested in catharsis or resolution in their narratives.
As with the best writing, our sympathies lie not only with Margaret, who’s fighting with all her might to keep her family and her life as she wants it, and David (the obvious Baldwin stand-in) who both fears and wants to experience the temptations of the world outside. This double perspective is nicely echoed in Ian MacNeil’s two storied set of Margaret’s house, with cramped living quarters downstairs and the church meeting space above, surrounded by colannades of Roman pillars under which cool skanky looking jazz musicians and gangsters’ molls hang out, silently observing the action.
For Margaret, as I suspect it was for Baldwin himself, religion becomes a protective shield with which to find solace from a cruel world, which just as quickly becomes a battering ram and a form of suffocation. Impressively, Baldwin never goes for an outright condemnation of religion, and I was especially impressed by how the writing, direction and acting of this production never sneered or took cheapshots at religious faith – not an easy package to present to a mostly white middle-class English audience for whom this kind of feverish, highly performative and emotionally expressive religious fervour seems comic at best and ridiculous at worst.
Best of all, Amen Corner attracted a far more multicultural audience than I’ve ever seen at the National, suggesting that there’s a huge untapped audience that just isn’t turned on by yet another revival of Ibsen or Chekhov. All-black or all-Asian or all-gay productions can sometimes reek of tokenism or a form of PC window-dressing that doesn’t detract too much from the “proper” job of mainstream theatre. Amen Corner transcended those limitations by being a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking piece of work, that speaks authentically from its own time and perspective and taps the painful universals of human emotion: love and loss. Amid a wonderful, all-singing cast and crew. I’d save a special Oprah-esque “Hey Grrrlfriend!” shout out to the great Sharon D Clarke, who plays Margaret’s best friend and confidante Odessa. It’s a tremendous performance, fueled with passion and dignity, and deserves as much praise as Jean-Baptiste.
If I were still a believer, I’d pray for a long and successful season for Amen Corner, and a West End transfer to follow. And someone put a tracking ankle device thingee on Jean-Baptiste: she’s simply too good to be allowed to disappear to the States for another ten years.