Tag Archives: Quentin Talley

Three Nights of Resounding Sermons Hit Spirit Square

Preview:  God’s Trombones

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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 Trombonessounds 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.

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“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.”

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Spying on Hamlet for Laughs

Reviews: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and BOOM

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead PromosIf you’re playing Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Hamlet, you’re not exactly one of the Danish Prince’s most formidable adversaries. On the contrary, you’ve been specially chosen by King Claudius to spy on your old friend Hamlet, who sees through your treachery rather quickly. You’re not exactly peripheral, either: you come on early in Act 2, lurk fairly often onstage until late in Act 4, and the pair of you have nearly 5% of the tragedy’s lines.

But the most telling comical point that Tom Stoppard makes about you in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the playwright’s 1966 riff on Shakespeare’s text, is that neither of you has enough personality to distinguish yourself from the other. Winner of the 1968 Tony Award, the play is a centerpiece of the current Sensoria celebration of the arts at Central Piedmont Community College, a natural in the month and year marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

With a title that telegraphs the fate of its protagonists, there are easier scripts to produce. Other than the UNC Charlotte staging in 1992 directed by Bill Morrison (#12 on my list of best shows for that year), I can’t recall a single local production that truly satisfied. On the contrary, each of the three revivals I’ve seen in the past eleven years, including this one at Pease Auditorium piloted by Tom Hollis, has come freighted with enough confusion and incoherence to make most audience members wonder: why?

To be fair, Hollis is working with the most inexperienced CPCC Theatre cast that I can recall. Yet at the same time, he and scenic designer James Duke try to keep things simple. There’s usually an upstairs-downstairs distinction between the royals who dominate Shakespeare’s stage and Stoppard’s flunky protagonists. Costumes by Jamey Varnadore aren’t lavish – down-market Elizabethan for the royals and courtiers, and a touch of commedia for The Player and his acting troupe.

Fifty years ago, it was only a slight exaggeration to declare that the pervasive influence of Hamlet in modern literature and culture was overbearing. Responding to all that was obviously a part of Stoppard’s agenda in his offstage retelling. But 50 years ago, Stoppard could be fairly sure that nearly everyone in the audience – on both sides of the pond – was in on the joke. In Stoppard’s native England, that’s probably still true. In 2016 Charlotte, after overhearing someone in the lobby confess that she’d never read Hamlet, I’d have to concur that it would have been helpful.

Quick quiz: what was The Murder of Gonzago? You might want to brush up on that stuff before you spend two hours and 40 minutes with Rosie, Guildy, and the gang.

Of course, it helps to have Shakespearean actors playing those portions that Stoppard swipes from the Elizabethan master. Yet what I saw from Jacob D. Page as Hamlet, Cara Cameron as Ophelia, Nick Southwick as Horatio and Polonius, Dwayne Helms as King Claudius, and Kristina Blake as Queen Gertrude didn’t convince me that any of them could give a credible full-length performance of any of those roles.

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I did detect some promise in this group of nobles and even more in the actors that Hollis found for his leads, particularly Tyson Hamilton as Guildenstern, usually the straight man in the comedy. If Kyle Willson had delivered more broadly and confidently as the simple-minded Rosencrantz, the chemistry might have worked better. Similarly, I saw plenty to praise in Larry Wu’s animation as The Player, but his scenes with the title characters lost traction as inevitably as the duo’s dialogues.

A familiarity with the absurdist chitchat between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is also recommended for all who plan to see or perform in R&G. Curiously, it was when the chitchat paused and Page appeared on the scene as the troubled Prince that my interest perked up. These are islands of realism in Stoppard’s world, for our bumbling antiheroes actually behave differently when confronted with their betters.

In the bustle of Friday evening in Plaza-Midwood, I wasn’t sure how many of the people crowding the nightspots were even aware of the new BOOM festival in their midst, and its special vibe. My wife Sue and I took in two events that night, On Q’s Mo’ Betta and Taproot’s DinnerBell, and two more the following afternoon, Sinergismo’s Not a Cult and Sarah Emery’s Threads of Color.

It was far easier to find parking on Saturday afternoon. Yet the shows we saw were just as well-attended.

All the fare I sampled was delightful. My favorite was the spoofery of Not a Cult: the True, Unbiased, Authentic History of Sinergismo at Petra’s Piano Bar & Cabaret. Mat Duncan was the Sinergismo Scholar, Dr. Reginald Haephestus Winterbottom, our guide to the sacred birth, copulation, sickness, celebration, and funeral rites of the ancient Gismo society, performed by re-enactors from Charlotte, their only known descendants.

Duncan likely concocted and directed all this fakery, including the first pair audience questions after the Winterbottom lecture. But who fleshed out the archeological spoof with the re-enactors’ costumes, choreography, and ceremonial masks is open to conjecture. The artisan who sculpted the sacred mound from whence all Gismo life issued and to whence it returned is also shrouded in mystery. Likewise the bogus, cheesy props, including a dispenser for the healing mound squeezings, a mound flower, and a severed head.

Probably the best aspect of Duncan’s performance was its lack of polish. Challenged by the planted audience member on why the mating ritual had omitted the jingling turtles, Winterbottom responded with the bluster of a true mountebank.

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Mo’ Betta was an old-timey mix of jazz, stand-up comedy, and improv poetry hosted by Quentin Talley. Jazz vocalist Kenya Templeton, backed by pianist Tim Scott Jr. and his trio, was the standout. Freed of the scripted constraints of last January’s Children of Children retrospective, where Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald were her primary inspirations, Templeton floated beyond strict 4/4 time, sounding more like Betty Carter in an exemplary rendition of “Afro-Blue.”

DinnerBell may add an “e” to its mealtime compound before long, since it was a compendium of feminine grace, hospitality, beauty pageantry, and genial racism that comprise the heritage of Southern belles. Brianna Susan Smith was the singer/narrator steering this “Field Guide to Impolite Southern Conversation” on its chameleon path – sometimes campy, sometimes satirical, and sometimes bluntly direct. There were biscuits, deviled eggs, collard greens, and bread pudding served up by the same ensemble that vied in the Ms. Georgia Cow beauty contest. The Q&A at the end of that contest was the best part.

For her suite of seven dance pieces, Emery took her inspiration from the paintings of local ArtPop Street Gallery artists, each of them projected on a huge wall at Open Door Studios as the dancers performed. With Emery taking a solo in “Sixth Season” and former Charlotte Ballet standout Emily Ramirez included in three other pieces – and taking a cameo in yet another – the ensembles and soloists were consistently proficient. Wrapped into the community feel that Emery orchestrated in her show was a dazzling array of costume designers who diverted my eyes as excitingly as the dancers and the projected paintings.

A great start for Boom and a great boost for Plaza-Midwood, where Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte plans to open early in 2017. You can help make that happen at atcharlotte.org.