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Posts Tagged ‘Donovan F Blackwood’

If you ask anyone around here what Amen Corner is, they’ll tell you it’s a junction where roads to / from Tooting, Streatham & Mitcham meet. Back home, they’d have said it was Andy Fairweather Low’s band (born 6 miles away – almost a neighbour). On the South Bank, it’s a 1955 semi-autobiographical play by American James Baldwin (one of only two he wrote) which I first saw 26 years ago at the Tricycle Theatre and again 13 years ago at the same venue. In Rufus Norris’ production for the NT, it seems quite a different play.

Harlem preacher Margaret separated from her jazz musician husband Luke and brought up son David alone. She lives below the tabernacle with David and sister Odessa. As the play starts, all is well in this devotional world, with her sister a church elder and her son its pianist. Luke turns up sick (and drunk), David starts to develop a life outside this insular world and Margaret’s life is turned upside down. The other church elder’s see this as part of her descent, making them intent on a coup. The personal story is played out against the contradictions of this 1950’s Harlem world – evangelical services full of people possessed and seedy clubs full of the fallen.

What makes the play very different from previous productions is that Norris has infused it with music – mostly the gospel of Margaret’s world, but also the jazz of Luke’s world. Ian MacNeil’s design cleverly delineates these worlds with the home stage front, the tabernacle above and the jazz world behind and to the side. The singing of the cast with the London Community Gospel Choir is uplifting, even to a hardened atheist like me, and contrasts with the sultry, sensual jazz soundscape. This does so much to create the dichotomy so important to the story.

I’ve already seen two stunning black casts in recent weeks, with Fences and A Season In the Congo (and there’s The Colour Purple to come in a matter of days), and here’s another one. It’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste again and her performance as Margaret towers over proceedings but doesn’t steal the limelight. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Luke, a difficult role requiring believable sickness and drunkenness. Recent graduate Eric Kofi Abrefa is hugely impressive as David and Sharon D Clarke has great presence as Odessa, successfully stretching herself away from the musicals we are more used to seeing her in. There are three brilliant performances as the machiavellian elders from Cecilia Noble, Jacqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood.

This must be the definitive production of this excellent play (a better play than August Wilson’s Fences across the river, in my view) and a great use of the difficult Olivier stage. I would have preferred the interval earlier, or two intervals, as the first half is twice the length of the second, but it didn’t get in the way of a thrilling evening at the theatre.

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