God's Trombones is the title of a book by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1927 and consisting of seven poem-sermons. Johnson, best known for the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," was hugely influenced by African-American folk tradition and by the preachers he heard in church on Sundays, and his poetry is full-hearted, generous and powerful:
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.
-- from "The Creation"
Director James Mapp has taken these seven works and intertwined them with spirituals, sung a cappella by six people whom he places in a Reconstruction-era meeting house and names for members of his own family: Lydia Gray, Ella Mae, Corabelle, Elijah James, Jack William and Walter Mack. Mapp himself plays Reverend Nelson Gray and speaks the sermons.
In his notes, Mapp says he has known Johnson's book since childhood. He became even more intimately acquainted with the work in 1964, when he did promotion for an off-Broadway gospel production based on the book called Trumpets of the Lord. The gospel group played for a predominantly white audience in Greenwich Village until Mapp persuaded the cast to stage a performance in Harlem. "Suddenly, our people began rushing in to see the show," he says, "and they haven't stopped coming for forty years." One has only to hear Mapp's version of "The Creation" to understand why God's Trombones endures.
Now Mapp has brought the work to the Shadow Theatre Company. Through myth and metaphor, the words and songs of this production tell the story of the black American experience. The evening begins with a sermon by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, born in 1872, and the son of ex-slaves. Dunbar's writings were a primary influence on Johnson. The sermon speaks of courage and endurance, and evokes the story of Moses, who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. A flurry of singing invites in the divine, and then we hear Johnson's beautiful account of the creation. This is followed by the story of Noah's ark -- "The Ol' Ark's a Mov'in'," "Didn't it Rain."
"The Crucifixion" is the one sermon not spoken by Mapp. Instead, it's delivered by the extraordinary Queen Yahna, whose voice is so full, rich and melodic that even her spoken words sound like song -- and her singing lifts the heart. There's an extraordinary intimacy to this piece of writing, too, as if Jesus were the speaker's suffering child, or as if the two were one: "O, look how they done my Jesus." The spirituals that follow allude to the suffering of the slaves and build to Johnson's "Funeral Sermon":
And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again--
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.
Just as death is followed by resurrection "In That Great Gettin' Up Mornin'," slavery is followed by freedom. The evening's last sermon invokes "The Judgment Day."
The singing and the performances are all first rate. The voices of the individual singers -- Larry King, Dwayne Carrington, LaDawn Sullivan, Edward Battle, Kimberly Woolfolk and Queen Yahna -- are all strong, and they meld together beautifully in harmony. King has a fine tenor, Sullivan is piercing in her grief for Sister Caroline, and Woolfolk's voice is smooth, warm and sweet, moving easily up into the higher registers. Mapp is a vibrant presence on stage, with a strong, authoritative voice and the air of a man who has seen a lot and still holds on to a deep and basic humanity.
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