Through Sunday, Aug. 5
NCCU University Theatre, Durham

Mid-song, actor Joshua Johnson wipes his brow, closes his eyes, and shouts, “I’m a soldier!” Immediately, the chorus in the congregation backs him up: “In the army of the Lord!” That’s all it takes, at the start of The Amen Corner, to serve notice that we’re in the presence of an ensemble very much on top of its material.

Powered by music director Cameron Morgan’s offstage keyboards and an authoritative choir on stage, the live gospel music accompanying Agape Theatre Project’s production of James Baldwin’s rarely staged 1954 drama is robust and soul-stirring, a tribute to black church traditions in America. Still, by evening’s end, I was reminded of a line from another vintage spiritual: “Everybody talking about Heaven ain’t going to Heaven.”

Baldwin knew the world of Harlem storefront churches firsthand, both from his preaching stepfather, whom he described in 1969 as “righteous in the pulpit and a monster in the house,” and from his own experiences as a boy preacher at age fourteen. The Amen Corner only sharpens the criticisms of the church that Baldwin began in his 1953 debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

When sanctimonious Sister Moore (a convincing Jacquie Deas-Brown) brays from the pulpit how glad she is that God has kept her humble, we hear the first note of the self-righteous pageant to come. It highlights Baldwin’s sharp analysis and director Terra Hodges’s discernment when boorish Brother and Sister Boxer (a properly strident J. Mardrice Henderson and a strong India Williams) first amuse and then infuriate us as they criticize their supposed inferiors. The results are ultimately tragic when the church’s charismatic leader, Sister Margaret (Rhonda Hatton), passes similar sentence on her congregants, her son (Wallace Morgan), and her one-time husband, Luke (a sinewy Thomasi McDonald).

From her first sermon, Margaret’s faith is obviously centered more on judgment than mercy. When she declares movies, drinking, jazz, and even comic strips in the daily papers as morally unacceptable, her narrow, brittle barricades leave little space left to breathe for those around her. In Hatton’s moving performance, we learn of the deep-set loss and fear that drives her to first take refuge in a set of scriptures, and then build a dictatorship that pushes people away.

Will the hypocrites wind up in charge of the church? In a sense, the question is beside the point. In Baldwin’s tragedy, the spiritual leader’s fall is all but preordained. Why? Long ago, the very heart of faithlovewas replaced by something else.