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Top Brass: Theatricality, Themes, and Theology in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 54-58 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0005

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The Harlem Renaissance gave America some of its most gifted writers. Zora Neale Hurston regaled her readers with her many tales of Eatonville, Florida, while her sometime friend Langston Hughes painted life in Harlem with broad strokes of both humor and anger. Another literary giant of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson, contributed (among many other significant works) a collection of seven prose sermons and an opening prayer written in the style of the liturgies of the traditional black church. God's Trombones remains one of the great treasures of the Harlem Renaissance and of American poetry. Although written as literature, God's Trombones is inherently theatrical. The poems' rich language illustrates many contextual themes present within the traditional black church worship experience, humanizes the often-caricatured black preacher, and is readily adaptable for the theatre.

Theatrical adaptations of God's Trombones have been staged regularly since its publication in 1927. In 1952, God's Trombones was featured on popul ar bandleader Fred Waring's television variety show. This production marked the first time an African American appeared on the program. Frank Davis portrayed one of the preachers and also sang Negro spirituals with the Waring Glee Club. In 1963, actress Vinnette Carroll adapted Johnson's work into the gospel musical Trumpets of the Lord. The musical, produced off-Broadway that year at the Astor Place Playhouse, enjoyed a run of 160 performances. A revival of this production was staged in 1969 by Theodore Mann, one of the original producers. The revival ran for one week at Mann's Circle in the Square.Trumpets of the Lord was remounted in New York by producer Woodie King in 1988 at the Shubert Theatre and in 1989 at the New Federal Theatre and at the Theatre of Riverside Church. Most recently, Johnson's masterpiece has received a revival of sorts at the Karamu Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey has successfully staged an adaptation of God's Trombones for three consecutive years. The Karamu productions have featured an ensemble of preachers, singers, and dancers from the Cleveland community. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Chuck Yarborough praised the recent production for its energy and creativity and a cast "which ranges from graybeards to junior-high kids."

Among the contextual themes vividly illustrated by God's Trombones is the celebration of the call-and-response ritual of the traditional black church. Kenyon College's "North by South," a three-year study of African American migrations from South to North sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, describes this "alternation between leader and chorus, often called call-and-response" as a "defining . . . [and] important element of African American music." Call-and-response has its roots in the ceremonial songs of West African villages. These chants traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in the bowels of slave ships during the Middle Passage as a means of communication and landed in the cotton fields of the South in the form of work songs and "field hollers." From there, they grew into Negro spirituals and the gospel hymnody of the black church.

The call-and-response phenomenon intrinsic to God's Trombones is vividly portrayed in the sermon "Go Down Death—a Funeral Sermon." In the Karamu Theatre's 2012 production, actor Kenny Charles skillfully used his formidable voice to elicit responses from both the cast and the audience. Spectator and performer alike encouraged Sister Caroline to transition from death to the heavenly gates of glory:

Weep not—weep not.
She is not dead
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Another contextual characteristic inherent to traditional black worship and woven into God's Trombones is the music. Dramatizations of the piece have been colored with the melodies of hymns, spirituals, and even gospel music. God's Trombones successfully integrates these musical genres both to complement Johnson's prose and to advance the narrative. While Vinnette Carroll's adaptation, Trumpets of the Lord, integrated new songs into the production, the classic Negro spiritual "Were You There?" was also a part of the musical repertoire. The sermon "The Crucifixion" is often augmented by the poignant lyrics of "Were You There?":

Were you there when they crucified...


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