By Mary Damiano
Can I get a Hallejulah? Can I get an Amen?
The M Ensemble, the company that won five Carbonell Awards at the recent April 2 ceremony, is back with its second show of the season, God’s Trombones.
While God’s Trombones seems different from Kings of Harlem, the play about a 1930’s Harlem basketball team, which won four of those five Carbonell Awards, the two bear some similarities. M Ensemble styled both shows as immersive experiences, and both plays feature an important part of Black history and culture.
God’s Trombones is based on the 1927 book God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson was an extraordinary man in any era, but especially for what he accomplished in his day. At a time when the odds were against a man of color having a single professional career, Johnson had many, including teacher, principal, diplomat, poet, Broadway lyricist and lawyer—he was the first black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. He was an influential leader and held a prominent position in the NAACP.
Johnson’s most famous book has been adapted to bring has words to thrilling life. More than just bible stories, Johnson’s anachronistic storytelling, both humorous and passionate, are fashioned as sermons and accompanied by well-known hymns.
God’s Trombones is reminiscent of playwright Young Jean Lee’s Church, which was produced in 2014 at Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. Just as Church immersed its audience in an old time revival experience, complete with outdoor tent and sweltering August heat, M Ensemble’s God’s Trombones immerses its audience in the joyous celebration and raw emotion of a Sunday morning gospel service, with a few twists.
For example, as Joseph Long, playing one of the preachers, recounts The Creation, his words are illustrated by interpretive dancers. The dancers, led by choreographer Jeffrey Cason, Jr., do excellent work and add another layer to the bible stories recounted in Johnson’s poems.
Long plays one of five preachers in God’s Trombones. Each is a standout in a different way, bringing different styles and personalities to Johnson’s poems. Long’s approach is steadfast and paternal. Isaac Beverly’s passionate, heartfelt retelling of The Crucifixion is humbling, while Ray Lockhart’s The Prodigal Son sears with fire and brimstone. Jean Hyppolite gives power to Noah Built the Ark. The lone female preacher, Toddra Brunson, turns her story, Go Down Death (A Funeral Sermon), into a powerful but tender tearjerker.
The preachers are accompanied by a choir whose voices blend seamlessly into one. But there are soloists who excel, despite having to compete with music so loud it often drowns out their voices. Brunson concludes her sermon by leading the choir in Peace Be Still. Long’s rich, clear voice is perfect for Go Down Moses. And Asher Makeba, Brianna Woods, Deidra Chiverton and Sarah Gracel sing Were You There, creating a sound so rich and pure it may bring a tear or two.
Director John Pryor has assembled a cast with heavenly voices, whether singing or proclaiming their truth. The simple set of risers and white draped chairs for the choir and a lectern for the preacher all framed by black curtains, leaves plenty of room for the dancers and for Mitchell Ost’s vibrant lighting design. Shirley Richardson’s costume design is traditional, full dresses in purple spiked with vivid prints and sashes for the choir and pants and dashikis in tones of orange and yellow for the male preachers. The dancers’ costumes enhance their characters, sometime lithe and body conscious, sometimes flowy dresses that enhance their movements.
God’s Trombones isn’t a play or musical in the traditional sense, but it is a theatrical experience worth having.
God’s Trombones runs through May 6 at M Ensemble. For more information and tickets, visit TheMEnsemble.org.
Photo Credit: Deborah Gray Mitchell