You wait years to see rarely performed African-American plays and suddenly there’s a flurry of ’em. After Fences, here comes The Amen Corner. And like Fences, I first encountered James Balwin’s play as part of the NT2000 project; at the Platform for it we had the bizarre combo of Antonio Fargas (Starsky and Hutch‘s Huggy Bear), who’d been in the original London production, alongside the Rt. Rev Wilfred Wood, the Bishop of Croydon; it was a curious event. The play’s not been done for ages, and here it is filling the Olivier stage in a tremendous production by Rufus Norris, lively and witty, sensitive and gentle, with fantastic music and a fine cast. It’s very much the women’s play and the female characters are the emotional core of the piece, driving the action, revealing the humanity and providing the comedy. At the centre is the flawed Sister Margaret, who shows the double standards of her faith and the conflicts of parenthood. Her family and her church provide both support and hostility. Her estranged husband and maturing son force her to confront her true self. The American Dream looms large, as in so many plays of the period, but despite their faith, to these African-Americans it seems even further out of reach than it is to Willy Loman. Marianne Jean-Baptiste has a quiet, subtle intelligence and rich stillness in the central role. Sharon D Clarke provides the calm, female support as her sister. Cecelia Noble is just freaking hilarious, although you can sense her venom underneath. Best of all is seeing this play take its rightful place on the main stage of a major theatre. Hallelujah.
On a personal note, I was so pleased to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste back on the London stage. When I was 20, I was on the final audition weekend for a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and over those two intense days – which were oh so important at the time – I formed a special bond with a fellow auditionee. She and I improvised together, sang together, tested our lines together and held each other’s hands during the long wait for the results. I got in, she didn’t. We never saw each other again. Marianne got an Oscar nomination, I didn’t… how lovely to meet in the National Theatre staff canteen and find we both remember those two days all these years on.