MPT program puts joyful refrains into ears of many

April 17, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

When Manna Mass Choir soloist Kenny White takes the traditional "It is Well With My Soul" to a heavenly altitude, tonight's episode of Maryland Public Television's "Joyful Gospel," becomes church, pure and simple.

The studio audience, transformed by Mr. White's sweet voice, becomes a thankful congregation and the line between church and state -- for a swift hour -- dissolves.

"[When] the program starts, we're having church," says Donald H. Thoms, the executive in charge of production who has collaborated with executive producer Everett L. Marshburn and co-producer Millicent Williamson, to produce "Joyful Gospel," now in its second season. Four shows featuring a variety of gospel performers air each season.

The soloists, ensembles, and quartets culled from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia churches "will tell you they're not performing, they have a higher call . . . it's ministry," Mr. Thoms says.

"Joyful Gospel" offers an escape from what Mr. Marshburn calls the "ghettoization" of gospel music. It is aimed at both viewers who grew up with the rich African-American musical genre, and those who are new to it, its producers say.

"We're hoping to attract African-American audiences that are looking for this kind of programming, and we are hoping to educate and illustrate gospel music to everybody," Mr. Thoms says.

The program is also a way of broadcasting the genre that, in both traditional and contemporary forms, thrives throughout the region. On any given Sunday, gifted musicians fill local churches and concert halls with spiritual song. Ms. Williamson, herself, is the member of a popular local gospel ensemble called the Victorians that performs frequently here and along the East Coast. Baltimore is also the center of an active gospel recording industry.

Transferring the energetic, improvisational nature of gospel music to the screen has been a challenge to "Joyful Gospel" producers. For example, when Stephanie Burroughs, a gospel performer from Rockville, delivered an electric, 15-minute performance during a "Joyful Gospel" taping, Mr. Marshburn had to shave it by half for tonight's episode. "Television demands precision and this music fights that. I think we have struck up a fairly happy medium between the two," he says.

One of the area's most prominent gospel ensembles appearing on "Joyful Gospel" tonight is Julius Brockington and the Manna Mass Choir.

A good voice is not the sole qualification for the 40-active members of Mr. Brockington's choir. "I interview each and every individual that comes to the choir," Mr. Brockington says. "We have certain guidelines they have to live up to. The first is they have to be saved.

"We're not perfect," Mr. Brockington says. "We're still human beings. But when we come together and sing the Lord's praise, we have the same focal point and that's Christ."

Mr. Brockington -- a self-taught musician who plays the organ and keyboard as well as directing the choir -- was saved after a long period of drug and alcohol abuse, he says.

For Mr. Brockington, "Joyful Gospel" is top-of-the line television. "I think everybody in Baltimore should support that show. . . . It's very professional." He is happy to have yet another vehicle for introducing gospel to newcomers. "They're the ones we're really trying to reach," he says.

'Joyful Gospel'

Tonight's episode of "Joyful Gospel" airs at 10 p.m. (Channels 22 and 67) tonight and again at 11 p.m. Sunday

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