This poignant and powerful 1954 play speaks to us as if it belongs to today, for the struggles it portrays – of idealism, seeking refuge in religion, loss of faith, and a group turning against its own leader – are universal. Yet these struggles are also utterly grounded in the lingering and layered sense of reality that the play so spellbindingly portrays.
One of only two plays that James Baldwin wrote, it is wrenched from the heart. Soul is also rousingly brought to the stage in the fierce and fabulous singing of the London Community Gospel Choir and the acting company that underscores and weaves through the action (though it is decidedly not a musical).
Set in the heart of a community around a Harlem gospel church in 1950s, where its dominating female pastor Sister Margaret faces growing resentment from her parishioners, the drama unfolds around the return of her long-estranged (and now dying) musician husband Luke. His presence exposes a different story to the one she told her flock about the reasons for their original separation. In the process, she also faces abandonment from their now adult son David, who decides to go off and make his own life.
It has been magnificently staged by Rufus Norris, who gives the upstairs church a wonderfully expansive group dynamic, yet fills in the detail of the drama unfolding in Sister Margaret’s apartment below the church with raw intimacy. The production works by atmospheric stealth; there’s nothing showy about the director’s work, just the utter integrity of the result. There isn’t a performance in the large ensemble cast that doesn’t feel completely inhabited and authentic.
But there’s particularly notable work from Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the Oscar-winning British star of Secrets and Lies making a long overdue return to the London stage as the brittle, wounded Sister Margaret, Sharon D Clarke as her loyal sister, Eric Kofi Abrefa as her son and Lucian Msamati as her returning husband.