A prodigal daughter comes back

Theater: Sherry Grant at first rejected her preacher parents' message - then created a musical reflecting her change of heart.

June 17, 2000|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,SUN STAFF

Some preacher's kids come to every service on time wearing their sharpest suit. They fill in for the missing usher and the off-key choir singer and keep the family name spotless.

They aren't the ones the neighbors talk about at dinnertime.

Those preacher's kids hang out with the street crowd and date guys with names such as Pookie. They're like Tracey, the heroine of the hip-hop and gospel musical, "Preacher's Kid."

Written by first-time playwright Sherry Grant of Baltimore, the musical follows Tracey as she veers away - and then returns to - the fold.

The production's cast of 65 includes hip-hop group Destiny's Child and comedian John Witherspoon. For two months they've rehearsed with Grant nearly every night, preparing for tomorrow's performance at the Baltimore Arena - the first in a 10-city tour.

Much of Grant's material is autobiographical. "It's like a joke: Everybody has the idea that preacher's kids are the worst ones," says Grant, 27. "One of the reasons so many of us went wrong is because we keep hearing it over and over again."

Grant, the daughter of two preachers herself, grew up next door to the church in Randallstown where her parents would become pastors. Her grandparents, uncles and two brothers played the organ. She wrote plays for the church youth group and sang in the choir.

Then she started middle school.

That's when Grant's mother, cleaning her daughter's room, found a sheet of paper with swear words scrawled on it - and the names of classmates.

She called her husband, and they sat on Grant's bed, looking at the paper and thinking: These weren't the people they wanted their daughter spending time with.

"Even though she didn't want me to, I had to take her and really be with her at all times to help her be a woman," says her mother, Muriel Johnson. "I only had a few months before she was going to be a teenager and get really out of hand. She's just always been this way, always so ahead, and I tell her to slow down, slow down, you have time."

But Grant wanted to hang out with the cool set. She began to think of herself as a consummate actress, playing the angel at home and doing what she pleased elsewhere.

"I wanted to fit in and it wasn't cool to be in church, let alone the pastor's daughter," Grant said. "So I dealt with that in all kinds of rebellious ways, even up to a year ago. I still have my moments."

Grant's family moved to Woodlawn when she was in high school. It wasn't until college, two years at Morgan State and two at Villa Julie, that trouble began again when she started dating Tony, whom she had met while at school and wanted to marry. Her grandmother said she hadn't traveled enough, experienced enough, seen everything she wanted to see. Her father quoted the Scriptures: "Do not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever."

"I didn't think it was a big deal until got I married and wanted to go to church, and he was like, `No way,'" Grant says. "I think that brought out the spirituality that I had been taught my whole life, and that made us go opposite ways.

"I learned that what my parents were trying to tell me from the beginning was right. And I never thought I would say that."

Within five years, the couple divorced. Grant left college to raise their two sons, Christopher and Drew. She began working at the day-care center associated with the Maximum Life Christian Church in Woodlawn, where her father, Carroll Johnson, is a bishop designate.

That's when she also returned to another comfort of the past: writing. Late at night, after her sons finally fell asleep and the phone stopped ringing, she worked on her book.

She wrote about the good kids who do their parents proud. She wrote about the kids who do everything they can to distance themselves from their parents. She wrote about preachers' kids. In 1998, she self-published her first book, "Preacher's Kids: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," and sold it from the back of her car.

"It was kind of a therapeutic thing for her," Carroll Johnson says. "It's what most children of leaders go through. If you're exposed to a large number of people who are watching your family, hopefully as a role model for family unity and for the way you handle discipline in your children, it begins to put certain demands on the child to conform to that ideal `Beaver Cleaver' family. Then you have friends making other kinds of choices with regards to dress, morality and the places they go.

"The pressures that we force on them are: You're a church girl, you've got to represent the church and the family, you're not to make mistakes in life. And of course everyone makes mistakes."

Six months after the book was published, Grant wrote a musical based on it. She wanted the musical to appeal to more than the gospel-going crowd of mostly older women, so she gave the show a hip-hop twist to attract her generation.

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