One of the hallmarks of a great production is that it can cut through any shortcomings in a play and find the heart of it, and so it is with Rufus Norris’s magnificent staging of James Baldwin’s 1954 drama. The play, Baldwin’s first, is stiff-legged in places, goes for a couple of contrived showdowns and under-writes several characters. But Norris’s joyous, music-soaked production shrugs this off, and he and his fine cast, let by a superb Marianne Jean-Baptiste, find the pain, joy and humanity in this heartfelt work.
Baldwin depicts the African-American experience in the 1950s through one small church in Harlem, New York. Here the pastor, Sister Margaret, runs a tight ship: we first encounter her delivering a rousing sermon with the refrain “Put thy house in order.” But Margaret’s own house is not in such good shape itself. Her husband Luke is long absent; her 18-year-old son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) is drifting from the path of righteousness. When Luke suddenly returns and reveals that Margaret’s version of events is not entirely gospel truth, her already chafing congregation begin to mutiny. Where, the church elders query with pursed lips, did Sister Margaret get the money for that new refrigerator? It seems the scriptures do not forbid cattiness.
The cast (Cecilia Noble and Jacqueline Boatswain in particular) find all the comic potential in this scheming, gossipy crew. But while Baldwin nails their sanctimonious hypocrisy with caustic relish, he also deftly reveals why religion is a lifeline to them. Running under the whole play is Baldwin’s cold anger at the prejudice and poverty endured by his people. And at the crux of the drama, as Luke makes Margaret face up to the devastating personal crisis that pushed him into drink and her into devotion, it becomes clear that poverty was the devil responsible.
Jean-Baptiste is outstanding as Sister Margaret, drawing you with her every inch along her stony road to wisdom. Sharon D. Clarke brings immense warmth to her long-suffering sister Odessa and Lucian Msamati is touching as her roguish but broken husband. The cast, their ranks swelled by the London Community Gospel Choir, sing with exhilarating abandon. And music is ever present in Norris’s staging, sometimes murmuring in the background, sometimes swelling in a rousing crescendo: a constant companion to this hard-pressed community. So he subtly presses home Baldwin’s message that they should unite in common cause, just as they unite in song.