New York, the 1950s. Sister Margaret Alexander. A popular, vibrantly energetic pastor delivers a rousing sermon to her congregation. Later that day, her estranged jazz musician husband very publicly rocks up on her doorstep. Tongues start to wag amongst the clergy…
From this precis, one might almost jump into their seat expecting a comic farce, yet James Baldwin’s 1954 play is a powerful and largely autobiographically inspired response to the timeless conflict of the religious and the secular, set within a close-knit African-American church community in 1950s Harlem. Rufus Norris throws the play to life, trimming the stage with musicians who provide a thought-provoking soundscape as evangelical hymns are chased by the trumpets and underground tones of jazz. The fusion provides a subtle, yet thought-provoking demonstration of an idyllic vision, a ‘harmonious’ co-existence between contrasting lifestyles.
Evocative and symbolic as it is, the constant musical presence in Norris’ first act engulfs more than it enriches. Considering that the events take place over the course of a day or two, the first half doesn’t half take its time. It is only when the music is whittled down that the story becomes truly engrossing, and my how gut-wrenchingly poignant it becomes. Ian Macneill’s two tiered staging cements the divide between the church and out-casted pastor Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and Baldwin’s bleak ending is a clear appeal for compromise, an articulation of his own belief in the hypocrisies of religion. As Jean-Baptiste hurls herself to her knees proclaiming to the deaf ears of her congregation that ‘‘to love the Lord is to love all his children, all of them, everyone!’”, more than a passing resemblance can be observed in Baldwin’s own declaration that “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving”.
Norris’ The Amen Corner is a vibrant, theatrical evocation of the destructive effects of blind adherence to religion which is as relevant today as it was at the time of writing. Baldwin’s script articulates a story of pain and oppression which yearns to be heard, it’s a shame that this production drowns it so frequently with an impressive, but laboured musical motif. 3/5
New Years Eve. Danny and Lyle, two brothers, shirtless, reclining, eyes cucumbered, mask slathered faces, deep breathing. Of all the ways you see this heading, it probably doesn’t involve one of these guys busting in an hour later, bloodsoaked and wielding a Nandos chicken.
The first twenty minutes of Happy New embrace you warmly into a close, if offbeat, sibling relationship that never lets a joke slip. The pair’s concerns are endearingly earnest, ‘do you feel it working?’ ‘How does this mask compare to last year’s?’ This relaxed, whimsical atmosphere headbutts a brick wall at speed as Danny’s irate girlfriend Pru charges in, brandishing a garish pink earring that she has found embedded in the front seat of his car. Pru’s incensed tirade reveals a sinister subtext to the pair’s kooky NYE celebrations as it transpires that Danny consistently shirks social engagement and Lyle has barely ventured beyond the flat’s four walls in five years. Through snippets of conversation it becomes gradually apparent that the siblings were abandoned as children, and, far from a wicker basket on a doorstep, were incarcerated in a chicken coop for 3-5 months before being discovered and subsequently seized by the media, forced into an unwilling celebrity status. The Lyle and Danny that we see are five years older, socially crippled by their loss of anonymity with a stockholm-syndrome attachment to the career savvy Pru who thrust them into the public eye to begin with.
With admirable brashness, Brendan Cowell’s forces one to question the morality of sensationalist documentaries. A quick scroll through any online tv player reveals reams of titles such as ‘Sex, Lies and Parkinsons’, ‘The World’s Squarest teenagers’ and ‘Dogging Tales’, and Happy New provokes the question of what happens once the camera has gone. Has a ruthless pursuit for ratings eclipsed any concern for the exposed individuals? Do we have a responsibility to shelter vulnerable members of society from the claws of the media?
Unfortunately, Cowell’s weighty intentions fail to fully manifest themselves. Strong performances from Lyle and Danny (Joel Samuels and William Troughton) are hindered by consistently overwritten dialogue which progressively evades any degree of ambiguity. It is difficult to comprehend that two socially hindered individuals, one of whom apparently reads nothing but takeaway menus that drop through the door, would have achieved the degree of eloquence that is granted them. The verbose style reveals too much detail, shattering any ambiguity which would have lent itself to a far more intriguing and thought-provoking exposition.
Furthermore, running at over two hours, the piece massively overstays its welcome. An interval shatters any remnant of claustrophobia, and we are welcomed back to an hour punctuated with laboured scene changes, and chunky, preachy monologues. As a final twist of the knife, Cowell’s tightly knotted ending doesn’t begin to do justice to the warped complexity of his subject matter. The boldness of this piece can not be knocked, and occasional flashes of brilliance continue to flicker throughout, though what is ultimately required of Cowell is a Happy New redraft. 2/5