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Reviewer: God’s trumpets a revelation

Being in the act when God’s Trombones: Seven Sermons in Verse made its Horry County debut at Timberlake Baptist Church on March 4 should be transported to a world where black excellence is central.

The mixed-race, standing-room-only audience who bought tickets to the show could easily have imagined being whipped through the streets of Mardi Gras New Orleans to the strains of the eight-piece marching band that opened the night.

Buglers marched to the foot of the stage and were soon wandering down the aisles dancing, each note lifting the church’s ceiling and the crowd’s spirits a little higher. It was like boarding a plane in the Burgess community and getting off in the middle of Wakanda.

Remarkably, writer and early civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the play in 1927. More than 90 years later, Johnson’s brilliance was revealed in Sweet Gilliard’s production. A forerunner of current popular playwrights like Tyler Perry, Johnson’s play captures the artistry of the Black Church with its powerful expression of musicality and rhythmic speech.

Nowhere was that power felt more strongly than through the 50-piece Charlotte gospel choir that graced the stage. Their renditions of gospel favorites like “God Is” and “Soon I Will Be Done with the Trouble of this World” were woven into the Black Church’s call-and-response tradition throughout production, with each song reflecting the central themes of the sermon that preceded it underscores .

Inspired by the pure and soulful voices, the audience jumped to their feet, clapped, sang along and shouted Hallelujah. Barriers between actors and audience fell away, making the moment a moment of true immersion. With each song the choir performed, the event became less like a play and more like a church service.

Though the chorus was extraordinarily moving, it was merely a compliment to the seven preachers, who delivered Johnson’s words with fiery passion. Each sermon, beginning with “The Creation” and ending with “The Day of Judgment,” interpreted familiar biblical themes.

The most poignant of these sermons was given by the Rev. Deborah Patterson. Go Down Death – A funeral sermon was coupled with the image of a wooden coffin being rolled down the aisle. Patterson’s words evoked memories of lost loved ones and offered a kind of restorative balm for the mourners, a welcome gift in the wake of a pandemic.

Quality art has a way of offering healing to suffering and escaping the harsh realities of life. Sweet Gilliard’s God’s Trumpets enabled an entire community to better understand our humanity and the ties that bind us together.

As someone who promotes the importance of reading through Freedom Readers, the after-school and summer literacy program I started almost 13 years ago, it was gratifying to see all the colors of Johnson’s beautiful work mixed with such cheer were recorded. It’s every English teacher’s dream to see a diverse, contemporary audience respond positively to classical poetry. My heart leaps to know that the production of Sweet Gilliard, now in its 20th edition, will continue to erase any doubt that Black literary and theatrical excellence is alive and well.

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