God's Trombones: Say Amen, Somebody

Santa Cruz Center for Culture,
May 8

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely ...
I'll make me a world.

-- "The Creation," by James Weldon Johnson

God's Trombones

This original adaptation by director Boyd Vance of James Weldon Johnson's slender book of poems God's Trombones was laid-back, intimate, and powerfully performed by the cast of singers and actors assembled for one weekend this May. Presented by Pro Arts Collective, God's Trombones was a performance/reading/ spiritual rendition of the inspiring poetry by the famous black American writer. In 1900, Johnson wrote what is considered his most famous poem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which, when it was set to music in the early 1940s by his brother John, a talented composer, became the national anthem to millions of black Americans. Vance chose this song to open the show, informing the audience that blacks stand whenever they hear this song and encouraging everyone to do the same.

God's Trombones consists of eight poems which interpret major stories of the Bible in sermon-like language. With their preacher-y tone and rhyming cadence, they are perfect vehicles for oratory. Vance chose not to adorn the stage -- folding chairs and a podium were the only props used -- and the minimal effect gave even more intensity to the spoken delivery and singing taking place up front where a lone spotlight focused on each soloist.

Vance sat in the middle of the stage with his back toward the audience as he directed the group of 11 singers and actors, and organist Rita Vendrell. After each poem, the ensemble gave rousing performances of traditional African-American gospel and spiritual songs. Vocalist Sheila King-Knight sang several solos that showcased her powerful and beautiful voice, and got people moving in their seats. Songs such as "Go Down Moses" and "Were You There" were chosen for the way they went along with the themes of the poems they followed. Vance collaborated with Sharon Coleman, a musican with a vast knowledge of African-American spiritual music, to choose the 10 songs that were used in the production.

Starting off the evening's prose was Maurice Moore reciting "Listen, Lord ... A Prayer." Smooth and articulate, Moore made it easy to watch him perform. Curtis Polk's rendition of "Prodigal Son" and "Go Down Moses" were among the evening's high points. Large, powerful, and charismatic, Polk led you to visualize him not just reading a poem, but preaching a Sunday sermon, with all his heart and soul; sweat poured down his face as the animated Polk delivered a stirring and emotional punch. The last piece, "The Judgment Day," was done by Marla Fulgham, who made it sound as if that day was coming soon. A lively performer, Fulgham was a treat to listen to and a good choice to close the show.

This is the second year that Pro Arts has staged God's Trombones. Vance, the company's artistic director, feels that each time he does the production it's new "because it's poetry and gospel music and each person brings their own personality to it." The nature of it is such that even though the structure stays the same, there is a fluidity to it that allows it to change. Simple yet classical, it allows for various interpretations as each person adds his or her own energy to it.

Pro Arts Collective is doing important work, providing one of the few outlets in Austin for African-American art and theatre. With people like Vance involved, the quality of the work being produced is professional. Even though he's been in theatre for more than 20 years, Vance still hasn't quite reached his full potential; I look forward to seeing an original piece written, directed, and acted in by him. Here's hoping that that dream will be realized one day soon.-- Mary Jane Garza


Red, White and Tuna

Paramount Theatre,
through May 30

Like many others, I have a warm place in my heart for Jaston Williams and Joe Sears' two-man small town called Tuna, Texas. With tongues firmly planted in cheeks, they reveal the redneck that is within all of us while celebrating the colorful "Texas-isms" we create or wish we had. I have grown up with the characters, and I have seen the trilogy at its best and worst. My first exposure to Greater Tuna, as produced on HBO (one of the few links to the outside world in my hometown), made me howl with laughter at the fresh yet frighteningly familiar characters. I just couldn't stop quoting Vera Carp's "Virgil, I mean it!" with accompanying puckered mouth and sharp hand claps. As a poor college student (translation: from the nosebleed seats at the Paramount), I finally saw a vibrant production of A Tuna Christmas. Years later, I also saw a sad, limp version of Greater Tuna in Dallas at a reconditioned night club inside the Anatole Hotel. Comparing the two performances is like comparing the scores at a home game versus an away game. The trilogy seems to belong in Austin at the Paramount Theatre and the final segment, Red, White and Tuna, provides hilarious closure for an eccentric community where Murphy's Law reigns supreme and dignity and absurdity are cozy bedfellows.

Breathless expectation was palpable as the audience waited for the famous "God.............. damn!" from Didi Snavely, the gravely voiced gun-shop owner whose motto is "Fireworks make a pop, but firearms make a point." Aunt Pearl, the grand dame of West Texas, had a few sparklers up her sleeve. Never a fan of pets or animals, she exclaimed, "If you can't eat 'em or wear 'em, what good are they?" In any other context, this remark would set some folks on fire, but juxtaposed with Petey Fisk's bungled animal-rights protest that involves himself and a bunch of scorpions in an enclosed area ... I'll let you do the math. In fact, many of the show's firecrackers seemed aimed with love at Austinites and the retro-New Age lifestyle. Star Birdfeather and Amber Windchime, aka Tuna expatriates Fern and Bernice, bemoan the lack of organic motor oil and express their relief that they escaped to the enlightened oasis known as Lubbock. No one is spared a little ribbing, and you laugh because you realize that they know you so well.

You can go home again to Tuna, Texas. You can visit all of your crazy relatives that you left behind when you became an "enlightened" individual. They are still there, battling change and producing verbal Roman candles as they're being dragged toward the next century. -- Dawn Davis


The Vortex,
Running time: 1 hr, 40 min

James Thurber's slightly off-kilter riff on the standard fairy tale makes The Thirteen Clocks, now on stage at The Vortex, a literary gem-let. The tale is of the Princess Saralinda, who is guarded jealously by The Cold Duke and for whom many a suitor has lost his life attempting to complete some impossible task that the Duke has set. A winning candidate appears in the disguised Prince Zorn, if only The Golux, a creature of splendid magic and a terribly bad memory, can point him in the right direction.

Directed and produced by Lila Harman (whose most notable work includes the ongoing, episodic performance/ritual, The Rites of Eleusis), the Lillith Productions staging of The Thirteen Clocks has that air of the mysterious so important to any good telling of a fairy story, although sometimes the level of discourse tends to droop in the hands of eager but inexperienced performers. Harman keeps the action rolling most of the time, having more success with Thurber's ironic twists than with some of the usual business you get from a play catering to "all ages."

Thurber's wit and tint of wickedness with the fairy tale is always evident. Everyone will recognize and enjoy the stock characters colored with the author's offbeat sensibilities: the notoriously evil, deep-voiced Cold Duke (Reed Oliver); the lovely and good but essentially mute princess Saralinda (Shannon Riley); the tireless hero saddled with the (impossible) task, Prince Zorn (Nicholas Dement); the Pooh Bear-like, absent-minded magician, Golux (David "Bel" Thompson); and the cynical sidekick and spy, Hark (John "Ash" Bowie). Henry Fitzgerald, Charlotte Christe, and Mary Ellen Baca LaVoie complete the ensemble, which plays this tale with care and earnestness.

Fitzgerald makes a fine narrator as the Taverner, but he carries the script in his hand throughout -- a bit of a distraction in that no attempt is made to make his sheaf of papers look like part of the story: Why not dress it up in the fairy-tale trimmings of the rest of the play's design? Set changes offstage interfere with the onstage scenes occasionally, and sometimes Thurber's imaginative forays into fairy tale telling get a little long-winded. But when all is said and done -- once Thurber provides the requisite happy ending and gleefully appropriate bad guy comeuppance -- this is a cute production, to touch the whimsical and the child in all of us. -- Robi Polgar

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Charles S. Duggan Presents, Red, White And Tuna, Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, Lillith Productions, The Thirteen Clocks, James Thurber, Lila Harmon, Henry Fitzgerald, God's Trombones, Pro Arts Collective, Boyd Vance, Curtis Polk, Marla Fulgham, Rita Vendrall, Sheila King-knight, Sharon Coleman, Maurice Moore

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