New McCree Theatre Showcases Gospel Music History

Reviewed by Sherrema Bower

The New McCree Theatre’s second show of its 17th season is a tribute to the roots and history of gospel music in America. Give Me That Old Time Religion – written by Flint playwright and McCree’s Executive Director, Charles H. Winfrey – weaves a rich tapestry of musical history with old spirituals, jubilee quartets of the “gospel highway,” and contemporary gospel music into the 21st century.

Give Me That Old Time Religion begins with a mesmerizing cakewalk performance, the pre-Civil War dance, choreographed and performed by African Americans that satirized the elegant ballroom dances that were hosted by the plantation masters. Act I is performed in an onstage “meadow,” where enslaved African Americans performed creative dance and song, free from the scrutiny of white masters and overseers. “The meadow concept is a way of understanding our history,” said McCree Director Cathye Johnson in a post-show interview. “They would steal away into the meadows to pray and have a picnic after a long, grueling week. It was a way to stay connected to the culture.”

Spirituals like “Before I Be a Slave,” stirringly sung by Rebecca Shepard and the Ensemble, and “Wade in the Water” carry the dignity and soul-reflection foundational to what would later become known as the Blues. “Steal Away” depicts Harriet Tubman (Brenda Sasser) leading survivors of slavery to freedom. This and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” transition the story to the gospel highway, “the church-based circuit toured by black preachers and religious entertainers,” according to author Jerry Zolten (nytimes.com). Songs like “Amen/People Get Ready,” “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” and “Did You Stop to Pray This Morning?” are performed by male voices of the Ensemble in the jubilee quartet, quintet, and sextet style of pre-World War II male vocalist groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds who toured throughout the segregated South.

Act II opens with post-war gospel groups, including a depiction of the Gospel Harmonettes and “Get Away Jordan,” and activist prayer songs like “Shine on Me,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and “We Shall Overcome.” Glen Gray, recording artist and member of the cast, performed “Be Strong,” written by Flint musical producer Jeffrey LaValley, as a 21st century rendering of gospel music. Christmas songs at Carnegie Hall’s annual inspirational December showcase of gospel music round out Old Time Religion, with a clockwise, choreographed Ensemble dance that transitions the narrative from ‘where we were to where we now are.’

Transitions are an important device in this musical play, as indicated by instruments, costumes, and “crowns.” In Act I, onstage musical accompaniment included a simple washboard and “shak-shak,” an instrument made of dried, hollow pods stacked atop one another, with beans or nuts inside. These were the precursor to the full-on bands that later accompanied songs in gospel, jazz, and blues. Clothing carried its own form of narration. For instance, narrator Bumblebee Bey appears as a vision, or spiritual “apparition,” in an ivory-colored, floor-length birdcage hoop skirt, sheer ruffled blouse, top hat with tulle, and Steampunk-style glasses. Her costume, designed by Ms. Pat Hill, is spectacular and evocative of the creative expressions of characters who are not free, yet sing anyway, in the spirit of Dr. Maya Angelou’s autobiography title, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” During Act I characters are dressed in work clothes befitting their vocations as farm laborers, housekeepers, cooks, carpenters, shoe shiners, and more. Women wore work dresses and head wraps. In the pre-Civil War start to the play, couples and friends enjoy a picnic – the etymology of this word, as it came to be later known during Jim Crow, also gets unpacked in Act I – and the women lay down their aprons as tablecloths. However, in “Wade in the Water,” the apron/tablecloths become “waves,” revealing their undersides of shimmering blue, as they are waved in a dance by the women. Men wear bib overalls or jeans with rope belts, flannel shirts, and hats with personal flair. One musician (Fred Fife) wears a silver top hat and tails over jeans, as he strums the washboard with thimbles on his fingertips. In a post-show interview, costume designer Pat Hill revealed that actors were given latitude for how they wished to express their characters in dress, especially during Act II. In “We Shall Overcome,” men wore suits, depicting their move to corporations, while women wore casual attire, appearing as activists and workers. Their stylish dress for Sunday churchgoing was especially seen in the hats or “crowns of glory” worn by women. One woman wore a classy gray suit and crown, and her hat’s elegant tilt revealed the head wrap underneath. It was a subtle nod to the transition of dress, from field laborer to respected Church Mother and gospel singer. 

Technically, the only flaw was the timing of sound during “walking narrations.” Actors wore headset microphones and spoke as they entered from stage left or right; however, sound only caught up near the end of their lines, as they exited. Regardless, gospel-goers will appreciate the song choices and vocal harmonies that clearly come through in solos and Ensemble songs.

            Give Me That Old-Time Religion weaves a rich tapestry of gospel musical history. The show continues through December18. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-787-2200 or online at www.thenewmccreetheatre.com

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