Rufus Norris’s production of The Amen Corner promises to be a summer glory for The National Theatre.  It shimmers with the best of James Baldwin’s writing, replete as it is with the resonance and cadences of the King James Bible, bent to the rhythms of African-American language, speech and music. In the hands of Rufus Norris it benefits from a formidable cast, and the added razzmatazz of the London Community Gospel Choir. Harlem’s community of religious fundamentalists in the 1950s is at the heart of Baldwin’s play, and what Baldwin called their beauty and their terror is both wonderfully evoked in the music and performance of this production. The tension between the religious life of the church, and the world ‘out there’ was a real-life dilemma for African-Americans in the 50s, religious leaders forcing people to choose between the only two institutions, Music and the Church – that kept them whole and offered community and structure in a discriminating society, often split families and friends, in a way Baldwin grippingly portrays.

Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the fundamentalist Christian pastor of a poor black church in Harlem; uncompromising even as her congregation chafe under her moral demands. Her life is turned upside down when her dissolute musician husband, Luke returns unexpectedly comes back into her life. Her son threatens to walk out of the holy life she has planned for him and into the ‘world’ as she calls it. Members of her congregation, emboldened by revelations that show Margaret to be less holy than she claims, begin to question her authority. (Cecilia Noble) is formidably funny, pitiable and at the same sinister as Sister Moore, the church elder who ultimately makes a grab for Margaret’s position as pastor.

Born into the church himself, James Baldwin always maintained a sympathy for the black church as a space that offered poor blacks a place of love and dignity, yet his drama also expertly draws out the barrenness between the narrow, religious life Margaret tries to create for herself, her son and her congregation against the deprivations of the world outside, and the obvious rebuke to that life offered by her dissolute and as it turns out, dying but defiantly worldly husband. When Margaret suggests to her congregation adding drums and trumpets to the church’s repertoire of worship, the suggestion of trumpets in the church appear too close for comfort to the worldly music of jazz. That their moral world is underpinned by the brutal reality of money and poverty in a marginalised community is soon brought home to them, as the false barriers Margaret has put up against what Baldwin might have called transcendent love, fall apart.

Musically, there’s a particularly deft touch from (Reverend Bazil Meade and Tim Sutton) in the addition of ‘What a mighty god we serve’, a song popular with contemporary evangelical churches – to the play’s drama; though that’s the only overt reference to contemporary evangelical churches, thematically there’s a lot here for contemporary African audiences to relate to, especially  the febrile and all consuming atmosphere of religiosity of daily life for communities steeped in religious practice, vividly brought to life vividly in Norris’s production. It’s not entirely successful in evoking the real-life material privation underneath all the internal church squabbles, sometimes, one gets a sense that this production plays up the comedy in place of the pain, either that, or The Amen Corner is James Baldwin at his funniest. For those familiar with much of Baldwin’s oeuvre, the humour may come as a little bit of a surprise, but a welcome one. It certainly went down well with the audience when we saw it. Ultimately, this is a masterful and excellent evocation of the febrile ecstasy, ridiculousness and joy that accompany any form of zealotry, punched through with humour and musical glory. The rare chance to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste on a london stage is an additional, but delicious bonus.

The verdict: It’s great to see this rarely performed important and beautiful play on the London stage.   A brilliant production with a brilliant cast, anyone who loves the rich cadences of African-American gospel music and the King James Bible will love this, and those that don’t will find the humour and pace of the play provide an entertaining night out.

The Amen Corner is at The National Theatre until 24 August 2013

Dele Meiji Fatunla