In a production full of soaring choral moments, it’s the undercurrent of silent strength that sounds loudest in this revival of James Baldwin’s 1955 play. When Sharon D. Clarke’s Sister Odessa faces down the grumblers and the gossips in her sister’s church, she stands firm, arms solemnly folded, dignified in the face of their snipping and griping, their small-mindedness and back-biting. She’s steady as a stone, a force to be reckoned with, even though she barely says a word.
This quality of quiet, feminine strength stripes through Baldwin’s play; his women know what it is to struggle – they understand hunger and grief and loss all too well.
Marianne Jean Baptiste plays Sister Margaret, the iron-minded pastor of a Harlem tabernacle who has raised her young son on her own after being abandoned by her musician husband. When she is in full flow as a preacher she is capable of generating waves of euphoria in her congregation; though small in stature she fills the room, white-robed, her voice rising and falling like the tide, her hands drifting heavenward, sending her flock into ecstatic paroxysms. She councils her congregation to put the Lord above all else in the world, to go hungry rather than take that job driving a liquor truck, to empty their pockets into the collection plate, to do everything they can in the service of God. He is everywhere and in everything. The church elders always greet each other with the exultation to ‘Praise the Lord’ – it’s the first thing that leaves their lips when they meet.
Sister Margaret faces a double test of her faith when her husband, Luke, returns unexpectedly, sick yet unrepentant, quivering with fever, his lungs ravaged by TB; at the same time her son is proving himself to be a talented young musician who’s not content just to play piano in church, he wants to ‘live in the world’ instead. There’s dissent too among her flock, who start to question the status of a female pastor and question quite how she can afford a shiny new frigidaire while they can hardly make ends meet.
Baldwin’s addict father left his mother when he was a child and the man who replaced him was none too pleasant either by all accounts, but despite this he does not make Margaret a saint; she is complex, proud, and over-comfortable in her position of power in the community. When the poorer members of her church complain about their situation, she doesn’t really hear them. And when it turns out that the reasons her relationship with Luke collapsed are more messy than she led on and that, in reality, it was her that did the leaving, walking out him after the death of their child to make a go of it on her own, they have their ammunition. As the church elders use this against her, the repeated calls of ‘Praise the Lord’ start to sound increasingly hollow, a way of excusing the most craven behaviour.
The play is often over emphatic and heavy of hand – the way the elders suddenly turn against Margaret seems too quick, too simplistic – but the central performances are powerful and Rufus Norris’ production creates a enveloping sense of community, a world, mainly of women, with the church at its heart, filling the Olivier with ceiling-lifted gospel music. Marianne Jean-Baptiste traces Margaret’s journey from near-complacency in her faith and her position in the community to raw confrontation with what it really means to love. Sharon D. Clarke’s Odessa is a calm, capable presence, unruffled and wise. Cecilia Noble is a cupcake-voiced delight as the most sanctimonious of the elders, a pastel-suited woman who uses her virginity as a weapon, a demonstration of the strength of her commitment to God. And though it’s the women you go home remembering, Lucian Msamati’s Luke is also far more than just a man gone bad; we come to see that he’s been as undone by the death of their daughter as Margaret has.