The Pew & The Proscenium: Performing Arts & Church Down Home
During the summer of 1998, my mother relocated us from Queens, New York to Raleigh, North Carolina to be closer to her parents. In the interim of the moving process, I lived with my grandmother for a school year in a close-knit, nondescript town known as Jamesville, North Carolina.
Jamesville, which I have yet to find on a map although I am certain of its existence, is a rural town in the eastern part of the state that began in the late 1800s as a free union. This is where my grandmother’s progenitors settled along with a few other families that would eventually intermarry and cohabitate in this ten-mile town of 150-or-so people. As you would imagine, this resulted in each of the families becoming relatives through either marriage or childbirth.
Undoubtedly, it was at my grandmother’s church in this ten-mile, two road town where I scratched my first performing arts itch. Though I had always been exposed to the arts, I had not yet stumbled upon the opportunity to have a personal experience in my youth. I was seven years old when we moved down south and the opposite of athletic. I found myself plunked in the middle of a town that seemed to be half a century behind New York City, and at first my source of entertainment were the games I played in my head.
My interest in theatre was first piqued by my mother, who is self-described as both eccentric and eclectic in taste. She spent most of her time living and working in Manhattan, in close proximity of several performance venues, which helped develop her into somewhat of a theatre buff. She went to Hunter College, where she was able to regularly attend on and off-Broadway productions as a young woman. Her interest in the arts bled through her like ink on cotton and colored my childhood in the most fantastic manner. In fact, scenes from her favorite film, The Sound of Music, remain ever-present in my childhood memories. I can recall rewinding Maria Von Trapp’s breakdown of Do Re Mi several times one afternoon after being dissatisfied with my mother’s insistence on what comes after “Fa, a long, long way to run.” These days, the lyrics offer us some nostalgia and can be bellowed at any given moment to recapture a sweet spot for my mother that reminds her of when I was still living at home. We would curl up on her sectional in front of the television with bowls of butter pecan ice cream cupped between our hands, waving our spoons as batons and singing each song with full conviction.
Although I never did learn how to recite the notes in reverse like the Von Trapp’s, I would go so far as to say that the influences from this film served as the catalyst for my personal curiosity about theatrical performance.
I began to look at everything through a performance lens, and the church was no different. Becoming part of the children’s choir and attending Sunday school felt like a rite of passage, and I was delighted to be included in something that was creative and allowed me to socialize with other children. Saturday evenings before bed, I would thumb through the closet of dresses that my mother had sent for me, visualizing tomorrow’s look. I figured that looking the part was at least half of the battle! As I became more engrossed in the church, I learned that I was not too far off, as much of the conversation around events focused on what would be worn and by who. It was quite spectacular, how the church balanced its collection of acts. All the elements of the theatre were there: rehearsals, costumes, performances, programs and special events, all converging into biblical adaptations that were carried out by members of the church, like a fully functioning theatre production, perhaps Nazareth Stage.
Joining the church was an immediate entryway to partaking in the performances that were enacted year-round, along with the largest annual production, the Easter program. In fact, all members were expected to have a role in at least one act on that Sunday if nothing else. There were always open roles for more actors, singers, and dancers. Those who were talented at reciting scripture or playing an instrument were invited to showcase their talents. Casting was a breeze, to have a part, you simply needed to show up! Although some church members were insistent on the role they filled, many were just happy to be involved, myself included. There was always a place for someone or something new to be added to the program. The environment was welcoming, an advantageous element in both church and theatre settings. I seized my good fortune and became an active participant, and that involvement in the arts continued throughout my junior high years.
I cannot recall the church ever having a formal title or name, as I had always heard it referred to as Reverend Boston’s church, a nod to the emphatic orator whose storytelling abilities commanded all eyes and ears to the pulpit each Sunday. The quaint, white building favored a ranch-style home and was flanked on one side by train tracks that skim the edges of an acres-wide tobacco field, while the other side served as sacred grounds for those whom the Lord has called home, many of them having been my ancestors. The inside of the church was confronted with a breezeway that was carpeted red and notoriously deprived of air-conditioning. The double-doors open inward, exposing the house. The pews, wooden and worn, were guarded by ushers, dressed in all white, clutching the service programs that detail the order of events and are placed in the hands of the attendees as they find their seats. Each Sunday was treated as opening day, and each guest was welcomed as family.
The characteristics of the town were celebrated and adored at the familial Baptist church in the town where my grandmother was born. The variety and purpose behind the programs and events orchestrated by the small town, became of great interest to me, and I remained informed on the happenings even after my departure. I would call my grandmother and ask about the woman in all gold or the man that sits in the front and falls asleep, to which she’d muse until she came up with whom I might be referring to.
Oh, your cousin Paulette? She’s in New York with her son now.
It would be several years before I visited the church again, and I remember having butterflies. Would they remember me? Would I remember them? Was I grown up now? I was thirteen after all. The last time they had seen me, I was green and demure, just getting my first taste of performance arts. Now, I was on the dance team, and had the recent boost to my confidence of having headshots taken for my portfolio. I wondered about them too, wanting to know if they had made the transition from church plays to school theatre like I had. Excitement pulsed through me like an electrical current as I combed my closet for what I might wear that weekend. I began prematurely planning our family’s visit when it dawned on me that we were in for a treat. We would be visiting Reverend Boston’s church for Easter Sunday, the most heavily attended, interactive, and entertaining service of the year.
That particular Easter at Reverend Boston’s church is embedded in my mind with such clear and crisp precision that it is almost hard to believe that it was more than fifteen years ago.
It was 2004, and my mom and her siblings had decided to travel “down home” to Jamesville and attend the Easter Sunday service with their parents. To this day, this event stands as the only occurrence where my grandparents would arrive at church with each of their five children, and each of their children’s children. There were eleven of us altogether, shoulder-to-shoulder across two pews, in the center of the church. After the service, my grandfather would sneak off to smoke a cigarette as my grandmother worked the room. She was elated to be at the center of attention as the ultimate matriarch, as her children were reunited with relatives and old neighbors from their childhood, and my cousins and I became newly acquainted with the other kids on the church grounds.
Afterwards, we arrived back at my grandparent’s home and had the feast of a lifetime. We ate our meal on the monogrammed China that was only used for special occasions. Following dinner, my cousins and I took up in the den and bonded over the day’s happenings. We also used that time to sneak seconds and thirds of sweet potato pie.
In the aftermath of Resurrection Sunday, Reverend Boston’s sermon is echoed throughout the town, traveling from porches and white rocking chairs, to living rooms and liquor stores in the weeks following. This chatter is merely an homage to the reverend, whose sermon is comparable to a monologue of sorts, challenging listeners to think, feel, and interpret meaning for themselves, guiding them to reflect on each lesson and incorporate it into their own lives. The Easter Sunday message touches on themes of sacrifice, humility, true love, forgiveness, walking in your truth and most importantly, restoring your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Like any cultural form, the African American sermon adheres to rules of performance, and I am cemented in my belief that this weekend of worship is rolled out like a Broadway musical, program and preparation alike. Buzz for the Easter Sunday sermon reverberates throughout the tiny community in the weeks prior to its culmination, like earned media for the church itself. Many are curious as to who the Reverend has invited as a guest preacher, eager to receive the word from a beloved orator with a reputation in the church that precedes them. The children are all curious to know which of their classmates are cast as actors in the Sunday school reenactment of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This performance that is carried out each year varies in creative execution but is, nonetheless, a vehicle for the same message: the necessary prevalence of good over evil.
It has been said that Reverend Boston spent close to six weeks crafting his Resurrection Sunday sermon each year, carefully weaving song and dance into each act, and maintaining a keen focus on intriguing the younger generation of churchgoers, bringing forth a true purpose, which is to show gratitude to Jesus Christ, the martyr who died for our sins.
The Black Church as Inspiration for Black Storytelling
The history of the Black church is deep-rooted in American slavery, yet also a safe haven for African-Americans who consider the church their first—if not only, vehicle for open expression. Because of this, many original Black plays were born out of the church, thus marrying the two industries uniquely. The sermon is written and delivered in tandem with song, performed as a relevant piece of the message, transforming what would be categorized as speech into a much more artistic and deliberate means of teaching through the art. The stories in the church are told in a manner that makes a spiritual connection to a profane world and translate symbiotically to stories told on stage.
It is important for Black people to not only see representation of themselves in the performing arts industry, but representation of their stories told accurately as well.
When I returned to the church that Easter Sunday, I found myself drawing on parallels between my experiences I had in Sunday school and in preparation for the Easter programs of years past with my experience in theatre class and preparation for the school production of Footloose. For me, the only real difference between the two events were the performers.
The transition from church to theatre for others may seem surprising, but that link exists for more than just me, and appreciating it is necessary for strengthening African American participation and acceptance in the performing arts. Oftentimes, insecurities about how our experiences will be received by other cultures or ethnicities can be a roadblock in the storytelling process. Connecting Black theatre programs and outlets with the Black church can help alleviate those roadblocks. Off-Broadway productions like Crowns and Black Nativity make that association clear. More recently, black playwrights whose work has gone to film have also incorporated the church in their stories. Playwright-turned-Producers like Tyler Perry and more recently, Katori Hall, whose Memphis strip club story was recently picked up by Starz and developed into the series P-Valley often incorporate church scenes in their work, and have credited some of their inspiration to Black church stories. Hall also views theatre as church, noting that we gather and experience the art of storytelling in both places.
The meeting space alone signifies that those who become members have a shared sentiment about the world itself. Theatres can learn from the welcoming environment of the down home church community and its incomparable ability to tell Black stories with depth, breadth, and understanding.
Rachael Berry is a writer and public relations professional based in Miami, Florida. She recently received her Masters in Arts from the University of Miami.