The Amen Corner, the first play by the celebrated black writer and activist James Baldwin, is revived at the National Theatre in this moving, musical and charming production. Inspired by Baldwin's own early life as a teenage preacher, it provides a snapshot of 1950s Harlem, exploring poverty, loss, love and religion.
The "corner" itself is a neighbourhood Pentecostal church, led by the passionate Sister Margaret. At first she is a much-liked local pastor but soon there is anger among the congregation.
It soon transpires that Maggie's story is not quite what it seems. She has walked out on her drunken husband Luke to establish the church. When Luke returns and Daniel, Maggie's teenage son, reveals his desire to break out of church conformity and poverty to follow in the footsteps of his jazz musician father, her world begins to fall apart.
The story is shaped as much by religion as it is by poverty. When Sister Margaret goes to Philadelphia to visit another church, paid for by the congregation's donations, there are murmurings of discontent. Brother Boxer, banned from taking a job as a liquor lorry driver, is particularly fervent in his attacks on Maggie's apparent corruption. It is clear that the congregation's complaints don't just lie in their feelings towards their pastor, but in their frustration at a life steeped in poverty.
Other details indicate the experiences of impoverishment. There is a congregation member who has lost not one but two babies to illness, as Maggie herself experienced. Luke, Maggie's husband, is dying from tuberculosis. And when Maggie's sister Odessa buys a fridge on credit, much to the annoyance of the congregation, it hints to a community that is struggling.
Music played a huge part in 50s Harlem and this is ably reflected in Rufus Norris's production. The cast puts in brilliant musical performances and are supported on stage by the London Community Gospel Choir. The Olivier auditorium fills with jazz and gospel, and the music really gives you a feel for the emotion that is poured into the church week in, week out.
An outstanding cast bring Baldwin's simple plot to life. Marie-Jean Baptiste shines as Sister Margaret and shapes a character that is as fervent as a pastor as she is humble as a woman. Sharon D Clarke, playing Odessa, provides sharp and humble support, whilst Eric Kofi Abrefa puts in a sensitive performance as Daniel.
Witty one-liners are delivered from the sanctimonious church elders to a point of near saturation but Cecilia Noble particularly shines as the supremely moralistic Sister Moore.
For those who are already fans of Baldwin, this production will remind you of his simple and powerful messages. For those new to his work, this play is an ideal entry point: memorable and hugely enjoyable.
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin is at The National Theatre, until 14 August