As you wander through Peckham's Copeland Industrial Park on your way to The Last Refuge, women from the neighbouring Evangelical Church also wander the alleyway in white dresses to the backdrop of gospel singing from the other warehouses leading onto the courtyard.
It is an exciting, hybrid place to stage Home, Samm-Art Williams' 1979 drama about an African American from rural North Carolina: the first time visitor likely wondering whether the women are part of the production, especially when gospel singing from actors Pearl Mackie and Shvorne Marks - also in white dresses - opens the show.
The Last Refuge, a new theatre where companies do not have to pay to perform, has a welcoming feel. Once we are comfortably tucked in with blankets, director Vik Sivalingam's production expands the corner of a Peckham warehouse into a farm in North Carolina: The street and bars in a bustling metropolis; the Greyhound bus, “a negro institution” taking passengers home South for Christmas; even the jungles of Vietnam.
Through breathless changes in character by Mackie and Marks, indicated mainly by simple changes of hats, and through athletic negotiation of the multi-storied set, three actors transform into an array of 25 different characters.
Samm-Art Williams' Tony Award nominated play attacks the myth of urban superiority. Like one of the fruits farmer Cephus grows for market, the “soft beautiful black sod” nurtures him. Imprisoned for his pacifist objection to the Vietnam war, ripped from the land he is forced into the hard city, which sets about to consume him. Childhood sweetheart, Patti, who initially believes she has “outgrown the land” when leaving for college, fares little better, ending up in a barren and lonely marriage to a wealthy lawyer.
The staging of the play is timely during Barack Obama's re-election period, when over 50% of homeless people in America are African American and when homelessness is so high on the political agenda in both London and the US. And indeed, we are successfully brought closer to the experience of main character Cephus Miles, played by Joel Trill, as he sleeps rough on the city streets, as we sit round the electric heater with freshly-distributed blankets in a cold, warehouse refuge.