What is it? Songs and actors interpret the sermons and stories of early 20th century black preachers.
Why see it? Charleston-based Art Forms & Theatre Concepts has performed God’s Trombones twice before at Piccolo Spoleto, and they’re bringing it back by popular demand. Derived from James Weldon Johnson’s book of traditional Negro sermons, the actors portray stories like “The Prodigal Son” in the spirit of an old-timey church service, while a preacher tells the story.
Who should go? The show is both sad and funny. Shifting between songs and acted-out sermons, it’s enough to keep you entertained and interested throughout. History buffs and gospel lovers will particularly enjoy it.
PICCOLO SPOLETO • $20-$25 • 1 hour 30 min. • May 23, 25, and June 7 at 8:30 p.m.; May 24 at 12 p.m.; June 1 at 8 p.m. • Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. • (888) 374-2656
Preacher Power: God’s Trombones remembers when church was theater
In 1927, James Weldon Johnson published a collection of sermons from African American preachers titled God’s Trombones. In it, Johnson tried to show the ways that ministers of the time shared parables with their congregations.
Trombones includes selections like “Train Sermon,” which compares the devil and God to locomotives — one taking cars of sinners to hell, the other loaded with saints heading to heaven.
Charleston’s Art Forms & Theatre Concepts has produced a stage adaptation of God’s Trombones for Piccolo twice before (but not since 1995). This year the production returns.
“The emphasis is still trying to paint the picture of the itinerant Negro preacher in the 1920s and early 1930s, which was a pretty depressing time for people of color,” says director Art Gaillard. “Preachers needed a way to motivate them and give them a sense of hope. Each has a distinctive style.”
Because congregations often heard the same sermons over and over, preachers became performers in order to capture their audience’s attention. The Piccolo production works with cadence, rhythm, and style to dramatize the presentation, incorporating responses between the preacher and congregation that work like poems, and using lines that encourage audience feedback. Songs spring from the preacher’s words, further pumping them up, which lends drama and humor to the piece.
“One particularly comical scene is ‘The Prodigal Son,'” Gaillard says. “He encounters so much on the road away from his father’s house — partying people, drug people, alcoholics, gamblers, ladies of the evening. When you’re coming from a comfortable environment, you want to stretch out on your own. You can’t help but laugh at some of the situations he gets himself into.”
Scenes are acted out by the 14-person cast as the preacher tells the story.
Most of the cast is local, but many have acting experience in New York and Los Angeles. Four appeared in previous productions.
“People will see the entertainment value in God’s Trombones, but there’s also a lesson,” he says. “That’s one of the things we always reiterate to the cast. Even though they are doing a performance, they also need to remember that they are sharing an important message.”