My relationship with black gospel music (which I love) is problematic. The church and its music has helped sustain blacks through 400 years of virulent American racism ... and I, privileged Caucasian that I am, feel like a carpetbagger every time I listen to a Mahalia Jackson CD. Complicating the matter is my own take on God. It's hard to imagine someone less religious than me. No, that's too polite: It's hard to imagine someone who hates religion more than me. And not just religion, but the very notion of faith, surely the most life-negating concept of all time. Consequently, poor old Mahalia doesn't make it on to my iTunes playlist as often as she should.
So I'm glad I could pose as a cultural anthropologist and review Journey of the Spirits, a new play featuring gospel music, written by Ernest McCarty and presented by Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
In plot and sentimentality, Journeys of the Spirit calls to mind It's a Wonderful Life. A run-down Chicago church is going to be bulldozed by evil developers unless the elders can come up with some quick cash. Watching over the action is a group of four Spirits, representing various times in African and African-American history. The youngest, a spirit-in-training, is sent to Chicago to help the church rebound. She spearheads a festival, a few hearts are melted, and the developers are sent packing.
The production's strength is the music, gloriously sung by this cast, especially Stevie Akers, Teri Bridgett, Marcia L. Jones and Tasha Michelle. The fierce back-up five-man band includes McCarty and bassist Dwayne Dolphin.
Director Herb Newsome does a terrific job moving us through the play's narrative section, on which it's best not to linger. McCarty's message is an important one -- that the community must honor its own past to move into the future -- but leaps of logic dull the impact. It's odd watching spirits from Africa's past praise the wonders of Jesus. Would these characters even have had heard of J.C.? Doesn't a monotheistic belief system contradict ancient African religions? And couldn't the case be made that Jesus was the God of the oppressors, forced on shackled Africans shipped to this country?
But I learned long ago that it's pointless trying to tell people who or what they should or shouldn't worship. I enjoyed the evening and had enough spirit left over to come home and fire up some Mahalia -- just don't tell anyone, OK?
Journey of the Spirits continues through Feb. 9. Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298 or www.kuntu.org