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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Donovan F Blackwood - Marianne Jean-Baptiste/ Ph: Richard H Smith

For a while it seems as if the Gospel music in this stirring revival of James Baldwin's play, directed by Rufus Norris, is mighty enough to make a Jewish atheist praise Jesus. Almost. But actually, it's Baldwin's sceptical take on blind faith that will eventually win over the heart of a disbeliever.

In the first of only two plays written by the novelist and essay writer, belief in Jesus is the glue that binds an entire community, informs every action, infects every thought. Each greats fellow churchgoers not with a hello, but with “praise the Lord.”

But that doesn't stop the virginal Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble) from mounting a campaign to oust Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) from the role of preacher. For Moore, religion is a piety contest, and the case against Margaret is looking strong now that Luke (Lucien Msamati), the father of her son, a hard drinker, jazz musician and, most tellingly of all, an atheist, has returned to die.

Baldwin was writing in the knowledge that the church was an important refuge for his fellow African Americans. It provided a safety net for a community whose men had few opportunities to be anything other than a hard labourer. Things have changed. But this play is still a powerful insight into the psychology of a community. And now that America has a vibrant African American middle class, there is a shift in the play's relevance. Rather than exposing the socio-economic condition of one community, the play serves as a satire on piety dressed up as morality. Sister Moore and her co-conspirators are as scheming and as venal as anyone else with ambition. It's just that her every attack on Margaret is said to be God's work.

Ian MacNeil's two-tier design, with the congregation above and Sister Margaret's quarters below, cleverly delineates between Margaret's public persona where she is a tower of strength, and the below-stairs uncertainties of doubts and marital score-settling.

Sharon D Clarke as her sister Odessa – one of only two sisters in the play who are siblings – is wonderfully poised, while Noble combines attitude and piety as Margaret's formidable usurper.

The singing may raise the roof. But the only conversions that are likely to be done by this show will be from blind faith to healthy scepticism. And in my book that deserves an amen.


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