Monday, 1 July 2013

James Baldwin's THE AMEN CORNER (National Theatre) and David Mamet's RACE (Hampstead Theatre) in London

     Theatre in London seems decidedly American this summer. There are major revivals of Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Eugene O'Neill's STRANGE INTERLUDE, Tennessee Williams;s SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, James Baldwin's THE AMEN CORNER and David Mamet's RACE, plus productions of Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES and the Pulitzer Price winning DISGRACED. Opera lovers can see Philip Glass's mediocre new work about Walt Disney, THE PERFECT AMERICAN, dressed up in a lovely production by Phelam McDermott. Most of these productions have been highly praised by the British critics.
      Baldwin's AMEN CORNER is filling the large Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The night I went, it received an unusual (for Britain) thunderous standing ovation. A large, uniformly excellent cast under the loving direction of Rufus Norris, proved what a fine play this is, deserving of a position in the canon of classic American drama. The AMEN CORNER centers on Margaret, an evangelist who runs a small church in Harlem. Sister Margaret wants to save her congregation, mostly exiles from the rural South (it is the 1930s) from the temptations of the big city. Unbeknownst to her congregation, she knows those temptations well. She left her husband, a hard drinking, womanizing jazz musician, and took up religion not because he made her unhappy, but because she was too happy in a sensual life. Now she raises her eighteen year old son and shares a small apartment with him and her devoted sister. Margaret's career and life fall apart with her husband returns home, dying of tuberculosis. When the congregation realizes that she left her husband, that she isn't as pure as she claimed to be, they remove her from her position as their preacher. To the women she is a hypocrite, to the men, she becomes just another woman who should have let her man take charge of her life. Baldwin's play is more about gender than race. Yes, these people don't trust the whites they work for, particularly when those whites try to get chummy with them. However, the focus of the play is, as it is in Baldwin's great novel, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, on the relationship of the church, gender and sexuality. When she is placed on the receiving end of the merciless judgment of her parishioners, Margaret realizes too late "the quality of mercy", that God loves all his creation and that she should not have been as harsh and judgmental of the weaknesses of her flock.
      Rufus Norris's production is filled with magnificent singing from the London Gospel Choir. It is also distinguished by fine acting from Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Margaret. Jean-Baptiste is not a physically big woman, but she convinces you of the size of Margaret's authority. Cecilia Noble is both funny and hateful as the sanctimonious, virginal Sister Moore who wants to take over the church. Sharon D. Clarke plays Margaret's fiercely loving sister and the ubiquitous Lucian Msmati brings out the life and love affirming nature of Margaret's prodigal husband.
      This production of THE AMEN CORNER was a special occasion, one of the best evenings of theatre I have experienced in years.
        David Mamet's RACE is typical late Mamet. It's full of power plays but, as in OLEANNA, the most treacherous character turns out to be the woman who begins in a subservient position. The title tells you that the play will be about RACE, the one subject whites cannot discuss in front of Black people. A wealthy white man has been accused of raping a young Black woman in a hotel room. The play takes place in the office of the lawyers he has chosen to defend him. It's a small firm with a white and a Black senior partner and a young Black female clerk. Clearly the defendant has chosen the firm because of the Black partner. As the lawyers deal with the case in which the evidence mounts against their client, there are numerous provocative discussions of race. The message is that Blacks mistrust and hate whites and that they should.
        Equally important is the play's treatment of gender. The crime is rape, after all, the brutal exercise of power of a man over a woman (and, in this case, a white over a Black). We also watch a young woman assert her power over her bosses and their client.
         The play is a kind of machine, a platform for discussion. The narrative is carried forward by the creakiest of theatrical devices. Messengers arrive at all hours with key information on the case, letters are delivered at all hours. Arthur Wing Pinero couldn't have constructed a creakier scenario. This group of actors, under Terry Johnson's direction, manage to do all they can to humanize the characters. RACE  in this production offers a lively eighty minutes of theatre. Like all of Mamet's work, it is basically heartless but, in this case, fun and provocative.
THE AMEN CORNER. Royal National Theatre Olivier Theatre. June 28, 2013
RACE. Hampstead Theatre. June 29, 2013.

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