Sun­day-go-to-meetin’ gospel cel­e­bra­tion

> Hat­tiloo stag­ing’s faith­ful to spir­ited mak­ing joy­ful noise

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - News - By Christo­pher Blank

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.