Reviewed by Sherrema A. Bower
The New McCree Theatre’s production of the award-winning gospel musical comedy Sanctified, written by playwright Javon Johnson and directed by Cathy E. Johnson, depicts the rigors (and revelations) of modernizing a church steeped in tradition. Set in the modern day “Bible Belt”, East Piney Grove Baptist Church has a new, interim pastor with a vision. Harold P. Jones (L. ‘Chris’ Young) is passionate, inspired, and hopeful to grow this fading congregation into a mega church. Pastor Jones faces down entrenched, traditional ideals from the church’s elder members, some of whom have been there for half a century. To bring East Piney Grove’s faltering choir to full strength, Pastor Jones brings in his cousin Pauletta D. Jones (Shannen Hawkins), PhD in music, and the church members do not take her seriously. Both a power struggle and coup ensue when Brother Deacon (Terence Grundy) challenges Pastor Jones’ position, while a mysterious odd couple named Sir (Frederick Fife) and Mister (Daniel Lopez) arrive bent on a heavenly errand to help East Piney Grove have a revival and thereby receive their own eternal reward.
This production carries the essence of several themes from popular culture, including the films Sister Act (1992), Joyful Noise (2012), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Sir is the dignified, dapper elder of the two and wishes to have a name befitting his station, as compared to his young, gangsta partner who recognizes Sir’s lofty disdain and cleverly gets the elder to call him ‘Mister.’ They become the Dum Dum Ditty Delivery Boys, who deliver a special ‘donation’ of music equipment to East Piney Grove Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. They are met at the door by Deacon, who is highly indignant that there should be a delivery of equipment about which he was not previously informed. Sir and Mister interrupt a scene of ineptitude when they are introduced to the church’s apathetic choir. Sir sings a rousing, bluesy rendition of the song they were practicing (‘Early in the Morning: Blues-Reprise’) to demonstrate how it should be sung. Meanwhile, Mister gets a little too cozy with young choir member Monique (Kimberly Harris). The elder members of the choir are not impressed by these strangers and prepare to throw them out when Pastor Jones intervenes and Dr. Pauletta makes a sweeping entrance.
In the spirit of Sister Act, Dr. Pauletta is given a choir to lead that is barely worthy of her level of education, skills, and talents; yet, she attempts to draw out the gospel harmonies that she hopes they are capable of. However, unlike Sister Mary Clarence and the nuns that she befriends, Dr. Pauletta is unable to find ways to relate to these simple country folk. She and Pastor Jones butt heads – not unlike Sister Mary Clarence and Mother Superior in the film – and family relationships and motives get revealed. The song ‘Come Out of the Wilderness’ captures their increasing tension, wariness, and challenge to one another and provides a compelling end to Act I. Meanwhile, Mister mentors Jamal (Jayden Hawkins), Monique’s younger brother and the three form a music band. Mister is fighting a growing, mutual attraction to Monique and tells her his life story (‘Doubts’). Her response (‘A Miracle In Your Eyes’) is beautifully vulnerable and naive. When she attempts to touch him, she falls to the ground and Mister lifts her with deep care and regret.
Meanwhile, other choir members try to gain ground and have their voices heard – although not always in song. They agree that pianist Sister Thelma (Tiana Rison) has an obvious drinking problem but are ambivalent on what, if anything, to do about it. Sis. Sarah (Martra Roberts) advocates on behalf of Pastor Jones, while Sister Clara (Beverly Woods) is intractable in her desire that nothing change and tradition be upheld. Brother Bobby (Giovanni Jackson), who longs to sing, ecstatically belts out his own inserted solos, whether or not they are on key, and brings the brevity. Other choir members, including Alverine Simpson, Renee Hill-Sykes, Patricia Thompson, Miguel Torres, and Cheryl Venerable, round out the choir. By play’s end, the East Piney Grove Baptist Church Choir finds its purpose in a grand finale reminiscent of another small church choir in Pacashau, Georgia, from the film Joyful Noise.
The character development in this production carries the story. For instance, Roberts and Young have good chemistry in their characters Sister Sarah and Harold Jones, one an elder and the other a young pastor, who understand one another in growing friendship. Their relationship provides a counterpoint to Sir and Mister, who jockey for position between themselves. Grundy plays Brother Deacon as a character who is snappy in dress and comportment. Still, he is also grouchy, indignant, and power-grabbing which culminates in a hilarious parody of Pastor Jones himself. While Sister Clara joins him in his quest to unseat the pastor, she is solicitous and protective of her niece Monique, and provides a counterpoint to her own story; she is no more a villain than she is a doting aunt. Hawkins, as Dr. Pauletta, impresses with her vocals, haughty airs, and beautiful dresses that are so fitting to her station; yet, she too is humanized when speaking of her purpose for coming to Piney Grove. Lopez, as Mister, provides a balanced mix of humor, street smarts, and under-the-surface vulnerability in his earnestness to complete this mission and prove himself worthy of a heavenly reward. In his kindness to Monique and Jamal, he is not unlike the character of guardian angel Clarence Odbody in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, who has yet to receive his wings, and finally does so upon helping George Bailey find his life’s purpose. Hawkins, as Jamal, ably plays a young rapper who is ambitious and headstrong and the sibling rivalry between he and Harris’s Monique is organic and familiar. The latter’s ability to play a much-younger character feels natural and fresh, as she blossoms from a shy, introverted singer into a powerful songstress, not unlike Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act.
The musical band, under the talented direction of keyboardist Mr. George Warren, also carries the story line with jazzy, gospel renditions brought by musicians Luther Brown, bass; Andrecious Reed, keyboard/organ; and Javaius Reed, drums. Lights (Cathy ‘Tess’ White) and costumes (Pat Y. Hill) help depict and develop the characters.
There is something for everyone in this gospel musical comedy, especially (but not limited to) churchgoing folks who may have experienced the clashing of generations in old and new – music, preaching, and ways of doing things – among their church pews.
Sanctified continues through May 21st. For more information contact the box office 810-787-2200 or online at http://www.thenewmccreetheatre.com