And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
Fort Worth — My relationship with James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones reaches back to a freshman-year high school English textbook, which (yes, I’m the kind of nerd who keeps her favorite schoolbooks) contains an excerpt called “The Creation”—a retelling of the first Bible story as a rural African-American “brother” of the early 20th century might have preached it. Then and now, I am caught by the beautiful cadences and vivid images, aimed at the hearts of a congregation more used to song and rhythm than the printed word.
Johnson, a poet, lawyer, NAACP activist, Broadway song writer—and, remarkably for an African-American of that time, named U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906—published God’s Trombones in 1927. The collection of folk-poetical sermons includes the story of the Creation, Noah, the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt, the Prodigal Son, the Crucifixion and more—and rose from Johnson’s lifetime fascination with the itinerant Negro preachers he first encountered in a Florida boyhood.
For its 35th season, Jubilee Theatre brings God’s Trombones back to the main stage for (by our count) its ninth run. No great wonder: this is one of the company’s foundational, bread-and-butter works, with book created by late Jubilee artistic director Rudy Eastman, and music and lyrics from his longtime musical partner Douglas Balentine. And it’s worth noting that three members of Jubilee’s original 1989 cast are among the 12 performers onstage for the current production: May Allen, Steve Griffin and Blake Moorman.
Director Gloria Abbs gets fine ensemble singing from the cast, many of them first-timers with Jubilee. As is natural in such a large group, some solo voices prove stronger than others: among the standouts are bright-voiced newcomer Mandi Green (she makes a fetching Eve) and original-cast member Allen, whose heart-deep rendition of the crucifixion story, sung with tear-filled eyes, left many in the opening-night audience wiping away their own. Some of the best singing comes in duets, trios, and even a barbershop quartet in the amusing Adam-and-Eve number “Blame it on the Woman,” sung by Jeremy Davis, Joshua Dunk, DeMarkus La’Ron Corbins and Moorman.
Selmore Haines III resounds as the voice of God, and Griffin (has he been a scene-stealer all his life?) mugs it up in multiple comic roles, especially as a glam Pharaoh cut down to size by tiny Nikka Morton as his fed-up (and funny) Queen. Gwinevere Nelson does a lot with a short solo sung to Moorman’s stuttering Moses. Altogether, in fact, the strong ensemble—also including Kenja L. Brown and Gina Monday as the Narrator— is good at selling the comedy: for example, in their repeated mass motivation across the stage, comically close (and sometimes tied together)—a moving, grumbling football huddle of Hebrew children, eternally suspicious of God’s plan for them.
Clearly, the show’s primary focus is on words, not visuals. Brian Scheffer’s set is minimalist and line drawn: the silhouette of a triumphantly horn-blowing figure (Gabriel?) at one end, the road to Calvary and its three crosses at the other. Costumes are basic show-choir blacks, enlivened by designer Barbara O’Donoghue’s fire-red blazer for Satan (the same color used on Pharaoh’s robe and a burning bush) and the waving, multi-colored scarves of those naughty ladies of Babylon. Carmen Jones’ choreography has some lively moments, though the group movement seems a bit predictable: wagging fingers for “sinners repent” and such. Music director Nate L. Young, tucked high above the stage, provides a lively and singer-sensitive accompaniment.
Whether you’d like to see it again or introduce someone to an American classic of folk theater, Jubilee’s God’s Trombones will do just fine. The show’s so-so moments are outweighed by the cast’s clearly personal feeling for these stories, some fine comic acting, and more than a few memorably soaring moments of song.
And as always, any production of God’s Trombones rides on the plain beauty of James Weldon Johnson’s words, once heard, never forgotten:
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the Great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky…
This Great God
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.