After musical forays that explored the ’30s and ’40s, Charleston’s African-American theatre company Art Forms and Theatre Concepts will hit the ’50s at this year’s MOJA Festival.

Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory is set in Harlem, where there’s a church, grocery store, and liquor store on every street corner. If they’ve a mind to, residents can get drunk and save their souls in the space of an hour. There’s one Lennox Avenue corner that doesn’t have a rock-solid place of worship, though. Armed with a second-hand tambourine and a layaway bible, Essie Belle Johnson and Laura Reed start their own.

“They decide that everybody else is hustling, trying to make a buck,” says Director Art Gilliard, who is also founding artistic director of AFTC. “They need to find something to get themselves out of their dire straits.” The church seems like the perfect vehicle to improve their lot. But Laura becomes attracted to a scam artist who suggests using the faith of local residents to sell scripture-led lottery numbers and holy water straight from a tap.

Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance writer, wrote this musical play in 1956. AFTC produced a “jazzical” version of his Little Ham for MOJA 2006. Needless to say, the music was a linchpin of the production. Delvin L. Williams had a memorable turn in that show as Louie “The Nail” Mahoney, and he’s back for this production. Yvonne Broaddus also returns; she acted in the company’s earlier shows like 227 (also set in the ’50s). The majority of the cast is brand new.

Although it was written 50 years ago, Tambourines remains relevant. “It’s a very timely, spicy show,” says Gilliard. “It’s discussing hypocrisy, people claiming to be spiritual but living unorthodox Christian lives.”

The story is typical Hughes, treating a serious subject — in this case, the exploitation of the faithful and the dangers of blind belief — in a comedic manner. He makes the touchy subjects palatable for even the most churlish churchgoers. Because of the easily identifiable characters and dialogue, Gilliard feels that the show is significant to the local African-American experience.

“A lot of people from South Carolina left this area and migrated to Harlem during that period,” Gilliard explains. He says that Hughes wrote the play “with the dialect of the South, but the humor of the North. The combination of South Carolina-New York accents makes it interesting.”

With its gospel-flavored music, rich characters, familiar setting, and big laughs, Tambourines plays to some of AFTC’s greatest strengths. —Nick Smith

Art Forms and Theater Concepts performs Tambourines to Glory on Oct. 3–6 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. (843) 554-6060. $20, $15/seniors and students.

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