By Sherrema Bower
When 23-year-old Albertina Walker helped form the gospel singing group in 1952, The Caravans, she had no way of knowing then that their group would span six decades, launch numerous careers, and would see her as its most steadfast member throughout.
Now playing until Saturday, Oct. 28 at The New McCree Theatre is the gospel musical play, “Voices from Heaven: The Story of The Caravans,” written by Executive Director Charles Winfrey, a Flint playwright, and artfully directed by Cathye Johnson, a Flint native who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
Laden with original songs, Winfrey’s “Caravans” follows the historical story of the group that launched and nourished the careers of such gospel greats and core members as Albertina Walker (played by Tiana Rison), Minister James Cleveland (Curtiss Stewart), Inez Andrews (Barbara A. Armstrong), Dorothy Norwood (Alina Oliver), Cassietta George (Starry Hodge), Pastor Shirley Caesar (Ayana S. Mitts), and many more.
How The Caravans came to be
“Caravans” begins in Chicago, 1952 when, after a particularly tempestuous recording session, Robert Anderson (John R. Vincent) parts ways from the group he started in 1947 called, Robert Anderson and his Gospel Caravan. His backup singers, Albertina Walker, Elyse Yancey (Alverine “Motown” Simpson), Ora Lee Hopkins, Samson Walker (Minister Jowanne Carrigan), and Nellie Grace Daniels, immediately establish their own group, The Caravans.
They then complete the recording project without him. Rison’s Albertina Walker narrates the play through the use of keeping a journal, a device constructed by both her and Director Johnson. Reading aloud as she “writes,” Walker says, “Rather than ‘The Caravans,’ we should have called ourselves ‘The Carousels’ because group members came and went, and came back again.”
Retaining the tight harmonies the original group was known for while featuring a variety of lead soloists, performers often launched solo careers after a stint with The Caravans. In 1953 alone, the group saw 13 performers go and come. The Caravans’ golden years, Walker explains, were from 1954 to 1966, with 1957 being “pivotal,” when Shirley Caesar joined. During both of their long careers, Walker and Caesar would go on to consecutively hold the title, “Queen of Gospel,” and James Cleveland was crowned “King of Gospel.”
Rich selections of songs powerfully performed
A multitude of songs, including “God is Good to Me,” “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus,” “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” — The Caravans’ first big hit — are powerfully performed by the characters and the ensemble.
Barbara A. Armstrong, as Inez Andrews, gives a rich and powerful performance of “Lord, Don’t Move My Mountain” while Alina Oliver, as Dorothy Norwood, nearly brought the house down with her soul-stirring performance of “Pass Me Not.” These two gifted singers team their voluminous voices and give an exquisite and rousing rendition of “Dem Dry Bones.”
Ayana S. Mitts does Shirley Caesar proud with her powerful rendition of the old spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” performed with the ensemble, and the song, “No Charge,” as performed in the play at the 1988 Stellar Awards. Curtis Stewart as James Cleveland gives a passionate performance of “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan.”
Patrons of McCree may recall last season’s “Needle in a Haystack: The Story of The Velvelettes,” a musical play, also by Winfrey, about a Flint- and Kalamazoo-based girls’ group from the Motown era. Comparatively, where “Velvelettes” engages in the development of each character, “Caravans” takes an overview of the group and its many performers, predominantly focusing on the six core members, as well as Iris Humble (Seena Brandon), to demonstrate how the group fluidly changed through the years.
Singing intertwined with facing racism
In the first act, James Cleveland, Albertina Walker, Cassietta George and Iris Humble visit Mahalia Jackson (Lauren Phillips), who has moved to Chicago from New Orleans. Jackson was Walker’s mentor and this small, tightly knit group of friends often sang as they cooked and ate together. However, in this scene, there is a bullet hole in Jackson’s window, a “present,” she explains, from someone “welcoming” her to the neighborhood.
Stewart’s James Cleveland explains, “In those days, gospel music was real. It was before Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.” The racism they often experienced only caused them to sing all the more.
Director Cathye Johnson drew heartfelt songs out of her performers. In a post-show interview on opening night, Musical Director Marlon Miller explained that this production has several newcomers who “haven’t been with McCree before, but they’ve been singing all of their lives. So they sit down and as they get to know one another, they share about the things that are important to them.
“Cathye will tell them to sing, and when they’ve finished singing, she’ll say, ‘Convince me. Sing like you mean it,’ and makes them sing again,” Miller said. “And before you know it, everyone has tears streaming. Cathye is the best for drawing that out of people.”
Hoping to bridge the generation gap
“We tried very hard to keep the show period-correct and as true to form as it was during that time period,” Miller said. Alina Oliver agreed. In a post-show interview, she said her challenge in rehearsing the songs as Dorothy Norwood was in relearning them. “Take the song, I’ll Fly Away,” she said, singing the first few notes of that chorus. “It was difficult learning that song the way The Caravans performed it because I’d heard it differently all my life.”
Her point is well made when the song, “Pass Me Not,” is performed yet again at production’s end. During the taking of bows, Tramaine Hawkins’s 1990 rousing arrangement of the same song, which featured rapper MC Hammer and was renamed, “Do Not Pass Me By” is sung by the ensemble.
Oliver, 36, said having been born the first year of the Millennial generation, she hopes to be a bridge to younger people who she said she feels are no longer listening to the old gospel songs.
This production’s team includes stage manager Lawrence “Chris” Young, set and scenic designer Alphonso Foster, lighting designer of operations Kathleen “Tess” White, sound designer Eric Williams, costume designer Cheryl Wright, and dance captains, Alverine “Motown” Simpson and Terence Grundy. Together, all bring the synchronous elements of this show to life.
Opening night saw a packed house at The New McCree Theatre, and playgoers sang the songs and clapped their hands along with the performers, together filling the auditorium with a joyful noise. The Caravans, who received 20 Grammy Awards and numerous Emmy Awards, were almost certainly there in spirit.
“Voices from Heaven: The Story of the Caravans”
Where: The New McCree Theatre, 2040 W. Carpenter Road, Flint
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Saturday; ends October 28th
Tickets: $15 Adults/$10 Senior Citizens/ $5 Students/$40 Season Pass
Information: (810) 787-2200, http://www.thenewmccreetheatre.com/
Running time: Approx. 100 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission
EVM staff writer and reviewer Sherrema Bower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.