By James Baldwin
Directed by Rufus Norris
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Wednesday 7th August 2013
I was pretty tired today and found myself yawning a bit in the run up to the interval, but that was largely because, with a three act play, they took the interval after the second act. It makes for a shorter second half (apologies to any mathematicians out there) but it can be a long wait for a chance to stand up and stretch. Once refreshed, the final act came across as more powerful, and I was wiping my eyes more than once in the last half hour.
The story concerned Margaret Alexander, aka Sister Margaret, the pastor of a congregation in Harlem in 1953. For all her flashy preaching, there were signs of a holier-than-thou sanctimonious attitude, and when she left her flock alone for a week to visit an affiliated congregation in Philadelphia, most of her sheep turned into goats overnight. Within days they had plotted a coup, and Sister Margaret returned to an eviction notice. Only her sister Odessa continued to support her, but she was seriously outnumbered.
The congregation’s reasons for turning on their pastor were many. For a start, she had ousted the previous post-holder without a qualm, convinced of her own calling to lead God’s people, and had been just as ruthless in exiling any of her predecessor’s followers who had expressed unhappiness with the change. In theory then, her flock should have all been contented little baa-lambs, right? Not likely. Human nature being what it is, there was all manner of discontent lurking beneath the surface. The amount of money raised in the collection versus the cost of a ticket to Philly, for example. Even so, she might have been able to keep the lid on those grumblings if not for the spectacular way her life fell apart just before she left on her trip.
Her son David was studying music and played the piano in the church. His mother had his life all planned out for him, intending that he too would be pastor one day, but he had other ideas. He wanted to go on the road in a band, playing jazz like his father, and he was tired of lying to his mother about where he was going and why he got home so late (or early, if you prefer the Sir Toby approach). Stories that he had been seen at a jazz club were beginning to circulate, and some natural resentment was springing up that the pastor, who was telling everyone else how to live their lives and run their families, couldn’t keep her own son on the straight and narrow.
To top it all off, her husband Luke turned up, drunk as a skunk, and her façade of holiness was well and truly shattered; first by the revelation that he wasn’t the one who walked out on the family all those years ago – she had taken their young son and left him – and then by her refusal to help Luke when he collapsed on the kitchen floor, clearly ill and in need of care. In desperation, Sister Maggie clung to the Philly trip as God’s calling when it was pretty clear that she was just running away from her husband a second time. David stayed behind to care for his father, and the first act ended with him helping Luke into bed, the women who had witnessed the scene praying in the kitchen, and Margaret upstairs in the church, having collapsed onto the floor, also praying.
I’d better give some detail of the set now, as that description won’t make a lot of sense without it. The set took up the front half of the Olivier stage, so there was plenty of room. At the back were two walls with windows, each with slightly different styling – arches over the windows and the like – typical of New York apartment buildings from the previous century. On the upper level was a meeting room, with a piano on the far left, some folding wooden chairs set up around the place and more unfolded chairs stacked against the wall. A small table near the front held the cross and some other stuff which I couldn’t see very well from our position (centre aisle near the front). The stairs down were on the left, and the kitchen below led off from the small landing. There was a large fridge, a cooker and some cupboards near the stairs, and a sink further back on the right with an ironing board resting against the wall beside it. From the sink area a corridor led behind the stove to the front room and the hooks for hanging coats. The kitchen also had a table and several chairs, of mixed parentage. At the very front was a small room with a single bed on the left.
For the second act, we were treated to some magnificent gossiping and backbiting from several of the elders of the church, Sister Moore in particular. She had given us the first laugh of the afternoon during her ‘Praise the Lord’ session after the Pastor’s initial sermon, during which she repeatedly thanked the Lord for keeping her pure (Amen, sister) and free from lustful thoughts (Hallelujah). It was her long, long pause after declaring her gratitude that God had made sure no man would ever touch her body that we laughed – her disappointment was divinely revealed to us through Cecilia Noble’s excellent performance.
With this track record it was no surprise that Sister Moore took the lead in gathering and disseminating any rumours or gossip that could discredit Sister Margaret. Mind you, she wasn’t the only one who was quick off the mark, and soon the church elders were having a meeting in the room upstairs to discuss the ‘truths’ which ‘the Lord’ had revealed to them. Sister Margaret arrived back just as they were singing a song inspired by the holy fervour of their devotional backstabbing, and was delighted to find her congregation so filled with the love of God. If she only knew!
Meantime, David had been able to talk with his father and find out some things he needed to know. He made up his mind to go on the road with the band he was in, which meant he wouldn’t be fulfilling his mother’s vision for him. Before she learned of this, Margaret herself had a talk with Luke, and the nature of their breakup became clearer. Years ago their baby daughter had died at birth, and with her husband not around due to his drinking and music, she had turned to God for help. This led to a complete change in her life, including the decision to take David and leave Luke’s ‘evil’ influence. Luke had felt he was there for her and was obviously upset that she’d left with their son, but on the other hand he couldn’t really explain why he hadn’t tried to find them earlier; after all, it hadn’t taken him long this time. The second act ended with the choir upstairs singing a song, Luke being sick in the bedroom and Maggie crying in the kitchen – her world had completely fallen apart.
The third act was set the following morning, bright and early. Margaret was in her dressing gown, and we learned later that she had been up all night. She stood at the kitchen table, and with the choir hovering at the edges of the upstairs room, they began singing songs quietly, first one, then adding in another, then another, so that they became a jumble in her head and she held her hands over her ears to try to shut the sound out. A woman from the first act, whose baby had been sick and was prayed for by Sister Margaret, came in, stood on the table upstairs and began singing; from the presence of an empty blanket it was clear her baby had died, and when Margaret went upstairs she did her best to comfort the woman with her religious convictions. That didn’t help, funnily enough, although I felt it was reasonable for Margaret to claim some understanding of the woman’s suffering given what she’d been through herself.
After the woman left, clearly not planning on coming to church again anytime soon, Odessa arrived with some groceries and began to make breakfast. When she’d stood up for her sister previously against the other elders, she had claimed that the nice new fridge in their kitchen had been bought by her, out of her own money, and the church hadn’t put a cent into it. Now that she was trying to motivate Margaret to get her clothes on and fight for her pastorship, one of the points she made was that they hadn’t finished paying for the fridge yet. We laughed, and it was a good way to show Odessa’s loyalty.
Upstairs, the elders were arriving, and the snapping sound the chairs made as they opened them out was funny. I also noticed that some of the spokes in the chair backs were missing; again, Odessa had made the point earlier that the congregation were very hard on the furniture, throwing the chairs around and breaking other things too, all of which apparently accounted for the money they gave each week. Margaret was having a hard time pulling herself together though, not helped by Luke getting worse. He did climb out of bed when the male elder, Brother Boxer, came down to the kitchen and started harassing Margaret; Brother Boxer skedaddled as fast as he could when faced with the threat of a sick old man. The effort was too much for Luke, though, and he collapsed and died in Maggie’s arms, just as she’d come to regret judging him and cutting him out of her life.
Odessa had helped her to get dressed, and now Margaret took off her white robe and laid it over Luke’s body (eyes smelling onions again) before going up to the meeting room and speaking the real truth about Christian love: that it’s to be given to everyone, regardless. This revelation wasn’t what the plotters had expected, but it scarcely threw them off their stride. By the time Margaret was back downstairs, cradling her husband’s body, the choir were well into a jubilant celebration hymn, which I noticed some of the congregation were slow to join. The play ended with a tableau: Odessa behind Margaret who was cradling Luke below, spotlit, and the congregation above silently frozen in mid-hallelujah with arms outstretched. It was a good ending, and we gave them almost as good as they gave us in our applause.
The performances were all splendid. Marianne Jean-Baptiste was totally believable as a Harlem pastor as well as a woman who had been through much suffering and who had made her religious fervour so absolute and central to her life. Lucian Msamati was excellent as her husband Luke, from the moment he came down to the kitchen singing a coarser version of By And By to his final collapse and twitching death. He was drunk enough that we could see why a newly converted wife could want to leave him and feel self-righteous about it, but also honest enough, especially when talking with his son, that we could care about him. Odessa was played by Sharon D Clarke, and apart from one or two untruths, she was the most Christian of the lot in my view, supporting her sister and showing a lot more tolerance and kindness than most of the ‘saints’ in the church. When Luke took out a packet of cigarettes to have a smoke, she put her hand on the packet and just shook her head slightly to let him know not to light up in that kitchen. The rest of the cast were excellent too, and the music and choir were absolutely brilliant. I hope they do a cast recording – already sent the feedback to the National shop. [Sadly, they won’t 9/8/13]
Apart from my tiredness, the only down side to the play was that we had to listen A LOT to Sister Margaret lecturing her family, friends and congregation about the exact Bible-prescribed way to live a righteous life. This is not the most fun thing to sit through, though it was necessary to show her controlling style of flock management. The play lifted during the third act, when Margaret had come to realise that there was more to being a loving Christian than the narrow view she’d been espousing up till then. Her transformation into a much kinder human being was well worth the wait, and what with the humour, our engagement with the characters and the amazing music, this was a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me