Sunday, March 27, 2011

God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse

GOD'S TROMBONES welcomes in holy season at Karamu

James Weldon Johnson is noted for his fervent poetic writings, many of which center on biblical stories. His GOD'S TROMBONES: SEVEN NEGRO SERMONS IN VERSE, which has been adapted by Karamu Artistic Director Terrence Spivey, is now on stage at Karamu, the “feel at home in the house” theatre.

If you have never been to Karamu, the entire experience is one to relish. The theatre's public relations director, the charming Vivian Wilson, is often at the front door welcoming audience members. As the play develops, the African American custom of call and response, the oral tradition of when something is said in a speech, sermon, or, in the this case, the play, instigates strong emotional feelings, members of the audience shout out their agreement with the words. Following the production, members of the cast form a meet-and-greet line and individually thank theatre-goers for attending.

God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons In Verse is a 1927 book of poems by author, poet and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, who lived from 1871 to 1938. He patterned the book after traditional African-American religious oratory with the preacher telling folk stories to the congregation. Using punctuation and line arrangements, Johnson captures the fervor of the congregation and underlines the importance of these sermons in the development of Black culture through an oral history. The author explains the title's use of the trombone by indicating that of all the musical instruments, the trombone most resembles the range and sound of the human voice.

After a brief invocation, the play continues with what is probably Johnson's most quoted poem, The Creation, with the invocation setting line, “And God stepped out on space, looked around, and said, 'I'm lonely, I think I'll make me a world'.” From there, through poetry, sermon and music, the tales of the prodigal son, a funeral sermon, the exodus from Egypt, the crucifixion, the building of the ark, the tale of Adam and Eve and judgement day, are highlighted.

The Karamu production, under the direction of Terrence Spivey, has many high points. The singing outshines the acting with strong vocals by Durand Ferebee (“I'm Coming Home”) and Karen Jones (”I Know I've Been Changed”). Another vocal highlight was “Soulful Hallelujah.” Jonathon Jackson did an excellent narration in the segment entitled, “Praise Him” and Kenny Charles has all the makings of a minister with his deep and resonant voice.

In general, the choreography did not parallel the moods of the music or the words being sung. There was often a lack of cohesion between the dancers.

The vast number of students from the Cleveland School of the Arts who were in the production, added an all-inclusive community feel to staging.

Some of the effect of vocal presentations was lost due to the overly loud volume of the microphones, which also sometimes caused screeching feedback. Why amplification was even needed in the intimate Jelliffe Theatre is a question.

Don't expect the typical gospel wailing that is often found in musicals at Karamu. The voices, in the main, are good, but compelling dynamics are somewhat muted, except in the final song.

Musical Director Sharolyn Malvin Ferebee and her orchestra did a nice job of developing the right moods and backing up the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: This is the time of year that many turn to religion for reassurance with the Easter and Passover seasons upon us. If you need a little “down home” ministering, seeing GOD'S TROMBONES at Karamu is a nice place to experience the glory.