ETA Creative Arts Foundation
It was appropriate that James Weldon Johnson looked to the sermons preached in Southern Baptist churches for a poetical form to reflect the collective character of his race. The powerful and euphonious words of God’s Trombones, first published in 1927, evoke a church that truly was a sanctuary in a hard and unjust world. Woodie King Jr.’s adaptation of this work for ETA replicates an old-time rural “platform meeting”–featuring not one but three guest speakers, whose dramatic delivery and often humorous self-examination, of the kind one frequently finds among worshipers secure in their faith, make for an educational and entertaining evening.
Take Sister Pinkson, for example. As played by Velma Austin she’s a bantamweight battle-ax who struts about when filled with the Holy Spirit, sings like a slide whistle (to the amusement of the choir), and displays enough self-possession to intimidate the archangels themselves. She’s a thoroughly ridiculous figure–until she recounts the parable of the Prodigal Son, dropping her clownish mannerisms to describe the corrupt city of Babylon so vividly that we can almost smell the sweat and perfume of the women “dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet / Their lips like a dripping honeycomb.” And when she entreats us, her voice dropping to a whisper as though cajoling a child, to turn our backs on that sinful city, we can hear her quiet strength and certain faith. Austin gives Pinkson a dignity she never loses, even after she resumes her comic persona.
These contrasting elements are also present in other characters. The Reverend Parham (Ron Pearson) arrives at the meeting on a bicycle seconds before it is to commence, but when he speaks of Death’s horses riding through heaven’s golden streets with “hoofs striking fire from the gold” he stamps his feet in imitation of the sound, a gesture that in other circumstances would be ludicrous but here only reinforces the image conveyed in the eloquent words. In her interpretation of the expulsion from Eden the Reverend Sister Alexander (Cynthia Jackson) has enough fire to strike lightning with her shoes as she sneers at Adam for “blaming his sin on a woman,” and John Crowley puts his opera-trained voice to good use in the role of the Reverend Washington, delivering a thunderstorm of a performance as he describes Judgment Day (“And I hear a blood-chilling sound / It’s the clicking together of the dry bones / And I see coming out of the bursting graves / Marching up from the valley of death / The army of the dead”) and repeats the final message from Exodus (“Listen / All you sons of Pharaoh / Who do you think can hold God’s people / When the Lord God himself has said / Let my people go?”).
Director Jaye Stewart has laced his production with plenty of vigorous music performed with skill and enthusiasm by Greta Oglesby, Elaine Joyner, Sandra McCullough, Mark Townsend, and a versatile three-piece band. “If you feel like shouting “Amen,’ shout “Amen,”‘ Sister Pinkson instructs us early in the show. “If you feel like joining in, join in.” (The audience the night I attended included the choir and congregation of the New Hope Community Baptist Church, who most certainly felt like joining in.) Whatever one’s attitude regarding the Bible and the proper way to acknowledge its influence in Western history, there’s no denying the power and pleasure of hearing Johnson’s immortal poetry interpreted by ETA’s excellent cast.