Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Somebody Say Amen! Great Women of Gospel readers who live in or near Chicago will want to check out the play Somebody Say Amen: Great Women of Gospel, currently playing at the Black Ensemble Theater. (I’m not sure how it may or may not be connected to/inspired by the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody, which covers the history of gospel music.)The Jeff-recommended play runs through February 20.

I went to the Sunday afternoon performance, and really enjoyed it. The play, written, directed and produced by Jackie Taylor (no relation to Gospel Gal), includes several of Taylor’s original songs. It centers around several weeks in the life of Mammatu Lewis, the 79-year-old matriarch of a loving family. Yahdina U’Deen plays Lewis with a snap-cracklin’ wit and wisdom that allows her to transcend the limitations of the archetypical gutsy-cranky elderly black matriarch (One of my favorite Mammatu lines: Daughter: “I love you, Mama.” Mammatu: “I love you, too, Baby. Now get out.”) As Mammatu’s health suffers and other family crises arise, she and her daughters and granddaughters turn to their love of gospel music to unify them and see them through.

Other cast members include Tina Brown, Melanie McCullough, Ardria Pittman, Rhonda Preston, Cherisse Scott and Jacqui Thomas as the very talented Lewis Sisters and Mammatu’s granddaughters. Jimmy Tillman leads a top-notch band as musical director and drummer. Band members include James Wheeler, Rollo Radford, Dedrick Blanchard, Paul Howard, Ernest Dawkins and Christopher Morris, and the songs from the play are available on a CD you can purchase at the Theater. They include classics like Harlan Howard’s “Jesus [I Love Calling Your Name],” and Harold G. Troy’s “No Charge,” (both popularized by Pastor Shirley Caesar), Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Walk Over God’s Heaven” and James Cleveland’s “Peace Be Still.”

It’s a pleasant and interesting musical, and I enjoyed it (and bought the CD. These ladies can saaaaang, y’all). As I viewed the play, I made observations along the following lines:

First, I observed a glaring absence of positive male characters—or any male characters, for that matter. Stay with me here—this is relevant, I promise. There aren’t any male characters, which isn’t a problem on its face. But when male characters are mentioned, they are ex-husbands (one character has four) or no-good boyfriends who become absentee fathers and cannot be trusted.

Even without the portrayal of a strong marriage, it would have been good to see or hear a reference to a civil relationship with an ex-husband who maintains contact with his daughter, or something like that. A could-be positive mention is Mammatu’s new love interest, who she meets at the hospital. As she prepares for a date, she says, “Contrary to popular belief, there are some good men out there. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep looking for mine . . .the next one could be the one.”

OK. Although Mammatu’s comment felt like an afterthought, a “no, really, this isn’t like Waiting to Exhale” kind of thing, it was clearly written to remind the viewer to seize the day, and to live in a hopeful way. Why not believe one might find love at 80? Why not put on one’s sparkly best and a little more lipstick and believe in the possibility of finding a good man? How very charming and you-go-granny!

So what’s the problem? Hang on. I’m getting there.

Earlier in the play, we learn that Mammatu was never married to the father of her four daughters, but because she was needy and looking for love, she would take him back into her life whenever he reappeared. At least three times after the birth of the first daughter. This is during the same time she was deeply involved in the church, “loving the Lord my whole life,” and during the same years her daughters sang as The Lewis Sisters, a gospel group making enough money to support the family. The same years during which Mammatu gathered her extensive vinyl collection of classic gospel, and the same years during which she drilled her girls on the history of each song they sang.

Her daughters have varying levels of involvement with the church. One daughter doesn’t attend at all, and another is the minister of music at her church (where she met all four of her husbands). No one has a healthy relationship. When Mammatu decides she feels the freedom to swear, she explains to her 25-year-old granddaughter that she’s been dominated by men her entire life—first, by her father, then by her, children’s father, and also by the pastor, with his ideas of how “good Christian women” should act. So her decision to say what she wants and live how she wants is framed as a feminist act.

My quibble isn’t necessarily with the swearing, per se. I’ve met plenty a salty-tongued saint (True Confession: on Bad Days, I’ve been a salty-tongued saint), and I know folks I’d describe as reverent though not pious. But here’s where I’m going: The play demonstrates a very weak connection between a love for gospel music and matters of personal holiness. There’s little/no connection between some good ol’ sangin’ and righteous living. So here’s the perhaps-unintended message of the play:

Life is so very difficult for African-American women, isn’t it? We are the victims of our bad men and hard luck, rather than accountable for our own choices. It sure is a good thing we have this good ol’ gospel music, soul-stirring if ultimately empty religion, homespun wisdom and sisterhood to see us through, because we are the mules of the world.


Some of my newer lurkers might feel like I’m being snarky and nit-picky. (Why is she so upset about a fictional play?) But scroll down a bit, and read some of my earlier entries. When I write about gospel music, I’m writing as one who loves it. I rejoice in its success at the same time I worry about its soul. Like any writer, I approach with my questions. I like to turn it around and examine its facets, to poke and prod.

All that to say, I’m not taking an adversarial approach toward Somebody Say Amen. One of the recurring themes of this blog is my exploration of the public perception of gospel music—what it means in the public imagination, how those of us in the gospel-loving community contribute to that public meaning, and how close that public perception is to the reality of the gospel message. Heady stuff, to be sure. But approached with humility and passion.

I’m passionate about what I’ve seen for a few other reasons, most of which fall into the “Something to Think About” mission of this blog.

I’m afraid that in this case, the characters’ approach to their faith reinforces some unfortunate stereotypes about Christianity as practiced by African-Americans. Basically, that it’s merely emotional and primarily for cathartic show and emotional comfort, rather than a life-changing relationship with Christ that compels us to live in ways that reflect his redemptive claim on our lives. That’s painful to point out, but it’s important. Is Christianity as currently practiced by Af-Ams more about culture, and less about Christ? Then (let’s) quit playing church. (By the way, I’ve observed similar portrayals in other pop-culture offerings.)

Speaking of stereotypes, the play is heavily dependent on the idea of broken relationships between black men and women. This is seen as the norm. I recognize that it’s not uncommon, but this family situation is definitely not the whole truth. And how about the repeated out-of-wedlock births? Owwwww! Why wouldn’t the characters’ faith make a difference in terms of helping them build healthy relationships and a God-honoring sexuality?

For those of us who believe in the healthier forms of feminism, don’t we owe the Ancestors a better use of our freedom than getting ourselves stuck in bad situations? In using the reference to the “mules of the world,” I don’t mean to imply that black women don’t face unique challenges in American (OK, global) society. That would contradict my own experiences. Racism and sexism are real.

But . . .I’m uncomfortable with the idea that merely pressin’ on through tough times brought on by our own poor choices—or swearing as a form of linguistic liberation—is really what folks like Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Anna Julia Cooper had in mind. And where’s the accountability in sisterhood?

Despite these fairly major issues I have with Somebody Say Amen (I also found the plot to be fairly predictable), I still think y’all should go see it. The Black Ensemble Theater is a nationally respected cultural organization. They’ll be doing shows on the lives of Etta James, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick and Billie Holiday this season—many of which are sure to be haunted by gospel ghosts. I believe in supporting cultural institutions. And I believe that interacting with artistic and entertainment offerings forces them to really serve an artistic purpose. Dialoguing with them engages our minds with different ways of viewing the world.

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