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"God's Trombones" performance celebrates The Church in African American culture

Anthony Leach, standing, addresses the seated, masked choir, Essence 2, at a rehearsal for God's Trombones at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Port Matilda
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
American writer and activist James Weldon Johnson, author of "God's Trombones," circa 1925.

James Weldon Johnson – known for writing the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – was a poet, novelist, school principal, lawyer, diplomat and executive director of the NAACP. Still, he found time to write a book of “sermons in verse,” in 1927. They’re based on actual sermons he had heard delivered over the years by Black pastors. That book later became a performance piece – a sort of church service with music, named for that book: “God’s Trombones.”

The LAF Theatre Company and the gospel choir Essence 2 will perform “God’s Trombones” Friday at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Port Matilda.

Veteran actor Charles Dumas will be one of the performers bringing Johnson’s words to life. He is professor emeritus in Penn State’s School of Theatre. The piece is special to Dumas, who has performed it several times before, including shows at Penn State and at the NAACP national convention.

“It means a great deal,” Dumas said. “It also tells the story of a part of the African-American culture which I think is very important: The Church. The Church has always been the center of African American cultural life for a couple hundred years.”

Johnson agreed. In the introduction to his book, he wrote that he collected the sermons because of the central importance of the church in the lives of Black Americans. And he acknowledged that there were certain popular sermons that were passed from preacher to preacher.

“In African art, the community is responsible for creating,” Dumas explained. “And whoever transcribes it, or carves it, or weaves it or paints it is not immaterial, but not as important as the notion of putting together what the spirit of the community is in the work that you do.”

Johnson’s book of sermons has inspired many performances. Over the decades since they were written, those sermons have often been performed with the addition of music, as they will be on Friday.

For this performance, the music was selected by Anthony Leach, director of the gospel choirs Essence 2 and Penn State’s Essence of Joy. Dumas said the overall effect is like going to church.

“If you’ve ever experienced the Baptist church, or the evangelical churches, the Black evangelical churches, it’s like that,” he said. “There’s a series of sermons based on stories from the Bible: Noah, and Adam and Eve, Moses, the Prodigal Son, and they’re stories that are from Biblical tales. And they’re done in a presentational preacher style. So the feeling you get from it, it’s like going to church. So you can skip Sunday and come Friday.”

Charima Young is helping to organize this performance of God’s Trombones. She’s a member of the Racial Unity Network, or RUN.

“And our mission,” she said, “is to bring about racial justice and reconciliation within the church first, and then our community. So part of that includes outreach that we wanted to do to help to right some wrongs in our justice system that has some racial disparities within it.”

Young said RUN is organizing this performance as a benefit for The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners.

“And some of the racial disparities within exonerations was quite stunning to us,” Young said.

She cites a statistic from the national registry of exonerations, which has tracked the reversals of wrongful convictions since 1989.

“The key thing I want to point out,” Young said, “is that almost 50% of exonerations have been African American: Black people within this country.”

The current percentage of Blacks living in the U.S. is around 13%.

“And we really wanted to see how we, as a faith community, could make a difference,” she said.

God’s Trombones will be performed Friday at 7:00 p.m. at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Port Matilda. The event is free, but organizers are asking for donations for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

The PA Innocence Project:

The Racial Unity Network in State College:

Essence 2: