Whether or not you go to church, you've been touched by African American gospel music in many ways over the years. Mainstream rock and R&B artists such as James Brown, Ray Charles, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins took the rhythms, the melodies, and the spontaneous expression of wholehearted emotion that are the core of gospel music and turned them into a new musical genre for people who have never been within shouting distance of a hymnal. But the roots of gospel singing, reflected in songs that praise the Lord rather than pump the libido, are still just as engaging and at times even thrilling.
Proof of this is evident in the Cleveland Art Theatre's presentation of Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep, now at Cleveland State University's Factory Theatre. Written by Margaret Ford-Taylor and Joyce Meadows (each of whom does double duty, the former as director and the latter as performer), the show is essentially a gospel concert, with the songs and brief monologues telling the story of Jesus Christ's life, crucifixion, and resurrection. While the details are all familiar (loaves and fishes, miracle healings), what sets this production apart are the smooth vocal chops and earnest expressions of faith conveyed by the six-woman cast.
Each of the singers portrays a different Mary from the New Testament, including the Big Two, Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. Moving around easily on desert-hued platforms and backed by a sharp three-piece combo led by Glen A. Brackens, the performers sing a variety of gospel songs that range in style from tender ballad to digging, percussive blues.
As Mary of Bethany, Shirley Cain Johnson testifies with uncompromising passion in "I Know I've Been Changed," adding priceless facial expressions to signal the depth of her feeling. And later, she calls out Lazarus in a voice that damn sure could raise the dead. Susan E. Hughes nails the title song and gives Mary of Galilee a bit of a bitchy edge, especially as she listens to sinful Mary Magdalene (an eventually repentant Joyce Elaine Linzy) rhapsodize about feasts and jewelry.
Also outstanding is Lucretia Colston-Bolden, with her bold and crisp interpretations, and co-author Meadows as the highly empathic Wife of Cleophus. Eva C. Blount, playing Mother Mary, doesn't quite have the vocal strength of the others, but still delivers, thanks to an intense focus on the words of "If I Could." Each of the Marys keeps returning to the refrain "And of this I bear witness," emphasizing their personal involvement in this oft-told tale. Under Ford-Taylor's silken direction, the ensemble feels like a tight-knit group, even though there aren't many direct exchanges among them.
For those burdened by the continuous need to separate the rational from the spiritual -- a necessary task in these days, when there are wolves on the prowl wearing the sheep's clothing of superficial religiosity -- a dose of good old gospel can lift the spirit. Celebrating the unity of body and soul, this glorious music is a balm in a cacophonous and conflicted world.