Sunday, October 08, 2006

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! (Karamu)


There is an emotional love-in going on at Karamu House! The audience is singing, hand-clapping, foot stomping, shouting out and paying homage. Why? They are enveloped in ‘GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL!,’ a historical investigation of the role gospel music has played in the life of blacks from the 1920s until today.

Conceived by Otis Sallid, the Karamu production is a world premiere before it starts on a national tour. It is being produced by James Pickens, Jr., a Clevelander and Karamu alum, who portrays Dr. Richard Webber, the hospital director on TV’s “Gray’s Anatomy.”

The show starts with a prologue which sets the tone and the story line into action. That transitions into 1920 which is represented by such songs as “Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley.” The 30s finds “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and ”I Love the Lord He Heard My Cry.” Yes, these are all the gospel songs that were sung in churches and gave hope and faith to the believers. The 40s found Negroes the victims of Jim Crow laws (“Goin’ on With The Spirit”) and leaving the South for the North (“Packin’ Up”). The World War II armed forces experiences made for attitudinal changes among both whites and blacks (“Surely God is Able”) and ushered in the 1950s (“Didn’t It Rain”/”How I Got Over”/”Walk With Me”) and the civil rights movement (“Where Is Your Faith In God,” “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and “We Shall Overcome”). Following enactment of integration laws, gospel transposed from religious into secular music and became mainstream (”A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So”).

The songs, hooked together with spoken transitions, make for a very revealing story.

The Karamu production is blessed with some excellent voices. Michael Burns has a nice sound and a playful presentation. His “Two Wings” is a show highlight. Eddie Sands had the audience howling as he sang the moving “Peace Be Still.” Angela Love sang a pretty version of “Perfect Praise.” Bernita Ewing wailed her way through “My Tribute,” “I Looked Down the Road” and “I Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” Leathia Williams, who has a big voice, sang a compelling version of “Peace in the Valley.”

Too bad the whole show isn’t songs, because, in general the cast isn’t much on acting or dancing. In fact, the spoken transitions were often flat and missing meaning. Neal Hodges, as the narrator, was often difficult to hear and understand. Many of his lines were poorly phrased and lacked meaning. The same can be said about Don Harris’s attempts at narration, though he made up for it with a nice song version of “Praise Is What I Do.”

What are the professional commercial prospects of the show? The script, with some transition changes and the elimination of extraneous songs, has potential. As for the production qualities of this show, there are enough weaknesses in the cast in their acting and dancing to make it questionable whether an audience, other than one as tied to the performers and the venue as the Karamu throng, will be willing to pay the big bucks needed to mount such an undertaking.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Karamu’s GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL! is an engaging experience. Members really get into participating in the goings-on, something which could be off-setting for some more traditional audience members not used to singing and speaking the praises of the Lord. All in all, though not a professional level production, the show is worth seeing in its present form.