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The Gospel According to Otis

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Despite its title, Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! isn't all hymns. The musical, which makes its world premiere at Karamu House tonight, attempts to tell the history of black Americans through song. "These are stories and songs of faith and courage," says playwright Otis Sallid. "It's not just a black piece. It's everyman's story. This is for all for us."

Like Smokey Joe's Café, Sallid's 1995 Tony-nominated history of R&B music, Gospel! revolves around a string of tunes that span the 20th century — by everybody from gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. "There was a need to put this whole story in a box," says Sallid. "I just wanted to open up these doors."

An onstage narrator guides audiences through the musical tour, while seven singers and dozens of songs chart the evolution of gospel music from field chants to radio hits. "It involves the great migration north to Brown vs. Board of Education," says Sallid, who choreographed Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Prince's Graffiti Bridge. "The history and the music are synonymous. They move along the same lines."

Gospel! 's roof-raising tunes reflect the eras in which they originated. As the play moves from decade to decade, the experience of African Americans — from slavery to civil rights — becomes inseparable from the songs. "But it's not political," says Sallid. "I like to think of it as 'Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk meets gospel music.' [Funk] takes us through the history of tap-dancing. This takes us through the history of America."
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Oct. 6. Continues through Nov. 5

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