We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Sister Margaret (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman), pastor of the Pentecostal congregation in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, chooses a quotation from Isaiah, “Set thy house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live,” for the play’s opening sermon. But very shortly, we discover that Sister Margaret’s house is in anything but order. She leads her small, poor Harlem congregation in a tabernacle above the tenement apartment she shares with her sister, Odessa (jaki-terry), who keeps house and cooks, and her son, David (Nicholas Packer), who plays piano at services. Tiny cracks have begun to show in Margaret’s life of rigorous piety. David has been staying out late and lying about where he’s been. Congregation elders Brother and Sister Boxer (David Lamont Wilson and Janice Menifee) and outspoken virgin Sister Moore (Maconnia Chesser) are beginning to think it’s time for the flock to have a new shepherd. When a young mother asks the congregation to pray for her sick child and Sister Margaret suggests the illness is a sign from God that the woman should leave her husband, it not only shocks the church members but also reopens a wound from Margaret’s own life. And then the return of her husband, Luke (G. Alverez Reid)—come home to die of tuberculosis—shatters the image Margaret has cultivated of an abandoned wife and forces her to face her responsibility for the dissolution of her family. Baldwin was the stepson of a preacher and preached himself as a teenager, and he is merciless in his examination of the faithful’s use and misuse of religion. As they settle in to share news about the pastor’s husband, for example, the congregation elders justify their gossip by reassuring each other, “The Lord don’t want us to be ignorant.” Punctuating the unfolding of Margaret’s past are rousing bouts of old-time, come-to-Jesus gospel singing by the exceptional cast, under the musical direction of Tony Booker. The only clunker of the evening is an original song, “I’ll Be a Man Today,” by Nicholas Packer and director Darryl V. Jones, which is much too adult-contemporary for the play’s 1953 setting. The Amen Corner is sometimes staged on two levels, with the church above the apartment, but Greg Mitchell arranges Margaret’s simple but scrupulously ordered apartment around the perimeters of the tabernacle (the Amen Corner really is in the corner), so the cast members pass easily from one to the other, symbolizing the blurred lines between devotion to God and family. Jones’ elegant pacing methodically strips the robes from each character, exposing their heartaches and motives like a fog gradually clearing to reveal a multi-car wreck. Like the African Continuum Theatre Company’s production of Chain last season, The Amen Corner elicits pity for characters devoid of self-pity. —Janet Hopf