Preview: God’s Trombones
By Perry Tannenbaum
OnQ doesn’t usually perform at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square, but when it does, it’s big, big, big. So shall it be, brothers and sisters, when God’s Trombones – sounds big, doesn’t it? – comes wailing, praising, shouting, and testifying into town next week for a three-night run, beginning next Tuesday. Capping OnQ’s “Redemption Song” season 11, the cast is among the company’s biggest ever, with around 25 actors, singers, dancers, and musicians performing onstage.
And if you’ve ever attended an event at McGlohon, or you know its recent history as the home of Pastor Stephen Furtick’s Elevation Church – or Spirit Square’s origins as the First Baptist Church – you’ll realize that OnQ has chosen the right place for James Weldon Johnson’s “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” McGlohon retains its stained glass, Sunday church vibe to this day.
Johnson was a seminal figure in African-American literature as a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, anthologist, songwriter, and collector of spirituals. Oh yeah, he also served as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua under Teddy Roosevelt and as executive secretary of the NAACP. He is best remembered for writing the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his novel, and for his most anthologized poem, “The Creation,” from God’s Trombones, first published in 1927.
OnQ artistic director Quentin Talley hasn’t wanted to present this classic for quite that long, but he has loved the piece since he was around 12 years old. That’s when his youth choir participated in a production presented by an association of black Baptist churches in his hometown of Greenwood, SC. It was one of Talley’s formative theatre experiences, and by the time he reached college age, it was foundational.
“I even ended up doing the ‘The Crucifixion’ as my dramatic monologue audition piece for Winthrop [University] and received a First Night Scholarship.”
In his original preface, Johnson said that he’d prefer his verse sermons to be spoken aloud – or “intoned” – so it’s natural that singing and dancing should be added to the package. Costuming will remind us where we are, a mix of pastoral robes, choir robes, and Sunday best.
“We begin like we are in a church service,” says Talley, “and once the sermons build, we take on various locations and time periods. Our choir is absolutely amazing, and the audience will probably want to stand up, sit down and say amen. All are encouraged to do so, but it’s not mandatory.”
Leading the choir in his first stint with OnQ is Dennis Reed Jr., whose GAP singers have worked with such notables as Fantasia, Bebe Winans, New Kids on the Block, and Shania Twain. On this gig, Reed is also auditioning the singers, picking the songs, and penning the arrangements. So does Reed fire up his newly-formed choir with righteous gospel music played on a hallowed Hammond B3 organ?
“Hahahahaha!” Reed responds. “That’s correct! You’ll hear the B3, piano, bass, and live drums. Much of the black church tradition is rooted in live music. What’s really cool is that we are taking a little liberty with song choice. We will fuse traditional hymns, Negro spirituals, and even new elements of music such as hiphop loops! As far as choreography goes, we’ll see a lot of it come together in practice and much of it happens organically.”
Though he’s never worked with Talley before, Reed is a fan of his work. A proud grad of NW School of the Arts, Reed has numerous musician and singer friends who have collaborated with Talley and OnQ – and his ties to Charlotte are not at all tenuous. He founded Inspire the Fire here more than 15 years ago, when he was 17, to bring the arts to young people between the ages of 10 and 21, earning Community Leader of the Year honors at the 2015 Queen City Awards.
GAP stands for God’s Appointed People, so gospel music and God’s Trombones should as much up Reed’s alley as Talley’s.
Johnson pieced his sermon suite together using “vague memories” of sermons he had heard or collected, and their subjects are familiar church staples. The typical old-time Negro preacher, Johnson recalled, “preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away.”
Aside from “The Creation,” the poet hearkens back to the Old Testament in sermons on Noah and Moses. Christian themes include the Prodigal Son, the Crucifixion, Judgment Day, and a non-scriptural funeral sermon.
“Each sermon will have a different approach,” Talley promises. “Most are recited, some acted out or sung, some are poetry slam form, but all have down-home preaching undertones.”
A mix of OnQ ensemble regulars – and authentic preachers – will deliver the sermons. Familiar OnQ faces will include Omar El-Amin for the Prodigal and Ron McClelland for the Crucifixion. Slam poet extraordinaire Bluz leads us aboard Noah’s Ark and Q himself orates “The Creation.” Preacher Yolanda Bynum launches the show with Johnson’s “Listen Lord” prayer, and Rev. Madeline Salder leans into “Let My People Go.”
Johnson intended us to hear trombones when his verse was read aloud – if they authentically replicated the preachers he heard in his youth. Listening to the trombone, Johnson heard expressive capabilities beyond any other instrument, approximating “the varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude.”
Of course, it’s fascinating that Talley, in reviving this Johnson gem, is hearkening back to his own youth, positioning himself to capture some extra flavors of its spirit.
“This show has been on our list for years,” Talley affirms, “but never really fitted with themes we’ve had in the past couple of years. With this season’s theme being ‘Redemption Song,’ it fit perfectly. As artistic director after 11 years of producing ups and downs, this show is a reminder to keep the faith. Running an arts org is taxing physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually, and sometimes you need a reason from a higher power to keep going, especially at the end of a season.”
Sometimes we also need to check out a worthy writer like Johnson who has unjustly fallen from his loftiest esteem, perhaps because he led the NAACP or perhaps because of the folksy, down-home flavor of God’s Trombones. Or perhaps because we prefer to say black or African-American instead of Negro. All these trivial reasons evaporate when you delve into Johnson with any depth.
You could start with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or you might begin with Johnson’s actual autobiography, Along This Way. Here is something trenchant that he observes there:
“On occasions, I have been amazed and amused watching white people dancing to a Negro band in a Harlem cabaret; attempting to throw off the crusts and layers of inhibitions laid on by sophisticated civilization; striving to yield to the feel and experience of abandon; seeking to recapture a taste of primitive joy in life and living; trying to work their way back into that jungle which was the original Garden of Eden; in a word, doing their best to pass as colored.”
Now that’s not folksy at all, but it is the keen intelligence embedded in God’s Trombones. More than 20 years ahead of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”