LONDON -- Some of the most thrilling singing on the current London stage is not in a musical but a 35-year-old play about a 'store-front' church in New York's Harlem.
The first 20 minutes of James Baldwin's 'The Amen Corner' is almost non-stop singing -- vibrant, rythmic hot gospel sung by the congregation of a fundamentalist church.
Music runs like counterpoint throughout Baldwin's 1952 play, which has been so extravagantly praised here that a New York producer is reported to be planning a Broadway production.
The play focuses on a church run with an iron hand by its pastor, Sister Margaret, where gospel singing is as important as gospel preaching. Sister Margaret's music-student son plays piano for her music-filled services, and her estranged husband -- she walked out on him 10 years earlier -- is a jazz trombonist.
Swaying, tambourine-shaking gospel music is part of James Baldwin's personal heritage. The black American novelist ('Go Tell It On The Mountain') and essayist ('The Fire Next Time') is the son of a Harlem preacher and was a teenage evangelist himself.
'I wanted to see if I could put the church I knew on stage and make it work,' Baldwin, 62, says now.
He does it so well that the audience cheered him in his stageside box at his play's recent first night in London's West End. Its appearance there defies astronomical odds.
First of all, Baldwin is hardly known as a playwright. He has written 17 books but only two plays, with a third now in the works. 'Amen Corner,' his first, was written as a youthful exile in Paris.
It took 13 years after it was written to reach Broadway, and did not do well. Baldwin says it is now performed regularly in the United States.
This English revival originated with a 6-year-old ethnic troupe called Carib Theater, formed for 'black actors, writers, designers, directors' and based in a working-class area of north London. The chance of Carib Theater products moving into the West End must be close to zero.
What's more, Carib first staged it in a 200-seat converted dance hall called the Tricycle Theater, also far from downtown lights. The 8-year-old Tricycle has fed productions to television but is hardly known as a source for West End dramas.
Baldwin's play demands a cast of 20, suicidal in today's theater economics. All 20 are black, a rarity in a country where black theater talent is scandalously under-used. Its basis is fundamentalist, old-time religion, hardly the stuff of box office magic.
Yet when all these obstacles were overcome, what was the result?
'The answer to every playgoer's prayer,' said the Daily Telegraph.
'A great evening,' said the London Times.
'An experience on the grand scale,' said the Independent.
'One of the best plays I've seen in a long while,' said the Sunday Express.
Baldwin's play and its powerful music create a rare rapport between audience and cast, despite a plot with melodramatic, soap opera elements.
When Sister Margaret's estranged husband lurches back into her life it sets up three confrontations -- between the pastor and her congregation, with her son and with the husband himself. Sister Margaret loses all three.
Baldwin cannot avoid an almost maudlin sentimentality in these conflicts. But his novelist's skill keeps a delicate touch, best shown in the congregation's revolt -- cloaked in expressions of pure piety - against Sister Margaret's stern rule.
And as one jubilant critic wrote, 'Baldwin's wit, the poetry of his firey prose and company performances of complete conviction make what might be a maundering polemic a triumph.'
'Company performances' is a key phrase. Carmen Munroe as Sister Margaret, American Al Matthews as her husband and Sylvester Williams as her son are outstanding individually. So is American Stacey Zuckerman's wickedly observed portrait of a sexy church rebel.
But 'The Amen Corner' is fundamentally a demonstration of Ensemble Power. The 17-strong congregation brilliantly catches the look and atmosphere of a black American church. And it sings with such angelic power that audiences can barely refrain from clapping out the beat.