Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866
Act I takes place ‘‘on a Sunday morning in Harlem.’’ It begins with a church service, led by Margaret Anderson, the pastor of a ‘‘corner’’ church. The singing of hymns, accompanied by Margaret’s eighteen-year-old son, David, on the piano, is an important element of the service. At one point, Mrs. Ida Jackson, a young woman, walks up to the pulpit holding her sick baby; she asks Margaret what she should do to save her baby, and Margaret advises her to leave her husband, but Mrs. Jackson asserts that she doesn’t want to leave her husband.
After the service, Margaret, her sister Odessa, David, and three elders of the church, Sister Moore, Sister Boxer, and Brother Boxer, congregate in Margaret’s apartment, which is attached to the church. Margaret’s long estranged husband, Luke, arrives unexpectedly at the apartment. In front of David and the church elders, Luke confronts Margaret with the fact that, while she had led everyone to believe that he had abandoned her with their son years earlier, it was in fact Margaret who had left Luke. After an infant of theirs had died, Margaret had blamed Luke for the tragedy, and had abandoned him to pursue a purely religious life. Luke then collapses from illness and is taken to lie down on a bed in Margaret’s apartment. Although David and the others plead with Margaret to stay and care for the dying Luke, Margaret leaves for a brief trip to Philadelphia for the purpose of aiding another church.
Act II is set the following Saturday afternoon. In the first scene, Odessa, Sister Boxer, and Sister Moore sit in the kitchen of the apartment, discussing Sister Margaret’s role in the church, given this new information that she had abandoned her own husband. The church elders express some discontent with Margaret’s use of the church funds and with her treatment of the congregation, as well as the hypocrisy they perceive in her years of lying about her relationship with her husband. In the next scene, David enters the room where his father, Luke, lies ill. David and Luke discuss David’s ambitions to become a jazz musician and his father’s life as a jazz musician. Luke explains to David that being abandoned by Margaret had ruined his life. Luke encourages David to pursue jazz, but also explains to him that music is nothing if a man doesn’t have the love of a woman in his life.
During the next scene, in the church, several of the church elders and other congregation members gather to discuss Margaret’s position as pastor of the church. They criticize Margaret for her use of church funds, her treatment of her husband, and her seeming hypocrisies in regard to what she preaches versus how she lives her own life. They all break into a hymn, during which Margaret enters the church, just back from Philadelphia. She explains that the Philadelphia congregation will be coming to join their service the next day. They all sing a hymn and then say a prayer.
In the following scene, David brings a record player into the room where Luke lies and plays a record of Luke playing the trombone. Margaret enters the bedroom, and David leaves with the record player. Margaret and Luke then have a conversation about their relationship and the role of religion in Margaret’s life, but the two come to no understanding. Odessa then enters and warns Margaret that the church is about to have a business meeting in which they will be discussing Margaret’s position as pastor.
Act III takes place the following Sunday morning. In the first scene, Margaret and Mrs. Jackson talk in the church; Mrs. Jackson’s baby has died, but she resists Margaret’s religious advice about the matter and insists that she is more concerned with her husband than with religion. In the kitchen of the apartment, Margaret and her sister Odessa discuss Margaret’s relationship with Luke. Later in the church, Odessa joins the church elders, who are again discussing their plans to oust Margaret from her post as pastor. Odessa attempts to defend Margaret against this decision. In the apartment, David confronts Margaret with the fact that he has decided to leave home to pursue his calling as a jazz musician. Margaret enters the bedroom where Luke lies dying, and they discuss David’s decision to leave.
Margaret and Luke finally make peace with one another and admit that they still love each other; as they embrace, Luke dies. Margaret then enters the church and speaks to the congregation, although she knows that they have chosen to oust her from her position. Margaret tells the congregation that she is ‘‘just now finding out what it means to love the Lord.’’ She concludes that ‘‘To love the Lord is to love all His children—all of them, everyone!—and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!’’ The congregation breaks into a hymn as Margaret steps down from the pulpit, enters the room where Luke lies dead, and falls beside his body on the bed.