Sunday-go-to-meetin’ gospel celebration
> Hattiloo staging’s faithful to spirited making joyful noise
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Long ago, the poet James Weldon Johnson recognized the vibrant sense of drama that resides in the church pulpit. In the preface to his 1927 book “God’s Trombones” he wrote: “The old-time Negro preacher of parts was above all an orator, and in good measure an actor. … Indeed, I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer incoherencies.”
Johnson also noticed that wherever he traveled, preachers always seemed to deliver the same sermons. The artistry (and for him in particular) the poetry of religion came out of the performance itself.
Hattiloo Theatre, the black repertory company in a small Downtown theater space, has just opened its fourth season with a musical stage adaptation of “God’s Trombones.”
The show poses an interesting question for viewers, who are likely familiar with the Biblical subject matter. Do we really want to go out for an evening of theater and end up hearing the same preaching that we can get (for free, or 10 percent if you’re righteous) on any given Sunday morning?
Johnson’s seven free-verse poems were inspired by the most canonical sermons. From Noah and the ark to the Prodigal Son, the stories are told with exceptional dramatic sensibility by three actors in the show, T.C. Sharpe, Tony Wright and Cooli Crawford.
Sharpe, especially, balances both the comical aspects of an old school preacher — the stereotypical pulpit-pounding, rafter-rattling Baptist — with the reverence of an actor reciting heightened language. If you’re interested in hearing the Bible’s greatest hits interpreted by actors, then “God’s Trombones” has many rewards. If you get enough of it in church, the show is authentic to a fault .
To his credit, director Ekundayo Bandele hasn’t modernized the story. His version of “God’s Trombones” is set in what he calls a “backwoods Baptist church” in the 1920s. An excellent 8-voice choir of singers — performing a cappella — sing old church standards such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down Moses,” “My Lord, What a Morning” and “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” among others.
Bandele creates a wonderful sense of place in his limited stage space. The audience feels as if it has just arrived in a small country church. The choir claps and stomps the rhythms in an old-fashioned way. The singing matches the tone of the sermons and occasionally serves as the backdrop.
With no plot to work with, Bandele dresses up the poems with activity in the choir, or lovely liturgical dance by Lydia Matthews, whose long, slender arms convey God’s grace as much as her own.
The combination of theater and church may not be for everyone, but Hattiloo’s respectable staging does no disservice to either.