If you compare human voices to musical instruments, most of us are equipped with dime-store kazoos. But when James Weldon Johnson wrote God's Trombones more than 80 years ago, an adaptation of which is now playing at Karamu House, he wasn't talking about our thin and squeaky voices.
His book and the stage adaptation, both subtitled Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, salute the old-time black preachers who thundered from the pulpit like throaty trombones and brought their flocks a sense of unity, comfort and purpose. This production sizzles with the same fire and passion the best of those preachers could summon.
Mixing free-verse sermons with gospel music and modern and African dance, Trombones is a riveting and inspirational experience. But it follows no plotline, jumping from a sermon about creation to the prodigal son, the story of Moses and the crucifixion.
It doesn't matter how well-worn these tales are, the telling is paramount — and here it is spectacular in virtually every way. So, in keeping with the "12 Days of Christmas," here are a dozen reasons why God's Trombones is a must-see.
1. "The Creation," read in a recording by William Clarence Marshall, his rolling voice-of-God tonality augmented by a robed chorus miming his words with simple elegance.
2. A full choir singing "Genesis" under the spirited direction of Karen Gorman-Jones, who is more animated viewed from behind than most people are from the front. (She also has a glorious solo at the end of the show.)
3. Rodney Freeman narrating "The Prodigal Son" with gravelly force as other players act out the story.
4. Durand Ferebee, who sings "I'm Coming Home" with clarity and a meltingly sweet earnestness.
5. Kenny Charles and Kenneth Parker, taking turns as preachers, using their vocal "trombones" like the legendary J.J. Johnson in a session with Miles and the Count.
6. Lithe Rashawn Anderson, the featured dancer, and all the dancers who stylishly execute the choreography of Desiree Parkman and Talise Campbell.
7. Joseph Moore who, Bible in hand, relates the story of Moses and connects to the audience even though he is often in shadow.
8. The powerful, soaring solos shared by several performers in "Calvary," as Jesus is nailed to the cross.
9. Kyle Carthens, who testifies about Gabriel as the rains of Noah change to "The Fire Next Time."
10. De'Ja Connor, who is precise and intense, and whose percussive contributions to the final "Hallelujah" anthem are positively nailed.
11. Everyone in the 36-person cast who contributes to this stirring ensemble production.
12. And, finally, adapter and director Terrence Spivey and musical director Sharolyn Ferebee, who make all this work while also making two-and-a-half hours fly by.
There are some uneven moments, but you're unlikely to remember them. God's Trombones will alternate with the excellent Black Nativity as the Karamu holiday show from now on. Each deserves a place on your calendar.