'God's Trombones' would play as well in the pulpit as on stage @

September 17, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

James Weldon Johnson wrote "God's Trombones" in 1927 as a tribute to black preachers. But the current incarnation at Arena Players is also a fitting tribute to that venerable theater, billed as the oldest continuously operating black theater in the country, and now celebrating its 40th anniversary season.

Director Sam Wilson has devised a concept ideally suited to the occasion: He has enlisted a virtual army of Arena Players. This is a surprisingly large-scale approach to an otherwise modest show, which consists merely of eight poetic sermons, interspersed with hymns. Fortunately, the director doesn't put his legions of talent on stage all at once.

Instead, Wilson employs rotating casts. The show's eight preachers and choir of 30 are drawn from a pool of 18 actors and 40 singers, augmented, on various occasions, by guest appearances by a half dozen bona fide Baltimore ministers.

This means each performance may differ considerably from the one before. But judging from Sunday night's example, which showcased both the old and the new, the result displays a broad panorama of Arena Players' skills.

For instance, the tale of "The Creation" was related by veteran actress, director and teacher Mary West Miller, who at age 82, is the senior member of the company. Miller had to be helped on and off the stage, but when she preached, she revealed the luminous gifts of a born storyteller, and her crisp, compelling delivery rivaled that of some of her younger colleagues.

In terms of the new, the production marks the Arena Stage debut of Clarissa Burroughs, an actress whose rendition of the Exodus story revealed impressively elastic vocal powers. The thunderous tones with which she bellowed the Lord's commands sounded fully capable of splitting the Red Sea, or, at the very least, causing one heck of an electrical storm.

Several of the sermons are simultaneously interpreted in modern dance, and even though Yvette Shipley's choreography doesn't always seem connected to the text, at Sunday's performance, the slow, mournful movement of Stephanie Hicks brought added depth to Johnson's "Go Down Death."

Musical director Tony Perkins coaxes tight ensemble work from his four-piece band and choir director John Beasley has assembled a harmonious chorus. For the most part, both men keep their music well modulated, but their efforts are frequently subverted by the unnecessary use of electronic amplification.

Arena Players' approach to "God's Trombones" is believed to include more participants than any production in the show's history. With this many variables, not all of the results can be godsends. But seeing director Wilson's army singing and preaching for the greater glory of religion and the theater is not only moving, it's a reminder that sometimes the two are not that dissimilar.

'God's Trombones'

When: Fridays at 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Oct. 4.

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

Tickets: $18.

Call: (410) 728-6500.

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