By Patsy Isenberg
The McCree Theatre’s latest show, “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” is an original musical written by Executive Director Charles Winfrey. It’s the story of music that originated with African Americans through the ages. The cast consists of three women and eight men. All the performers bring forth impassioned and skillful singing throughout the show.
Director Cathye Johnson, a former Flint resident and veteran McCree Theatre member, came back to Flint from where she currently resides in Missouri to direct the show. Lighting is done by Kathleen “Tess” White and the set design is by Alphonso Foster. Eric Williams provided sound design and the costume designer is Cheryl Wright.
There are 17 songs performed, some bitter, some sweet, and some foot-stompers. The excellent instrumental music backing up the awesome singing for each song was provided by Music Director Marlon Miller on keyboards, Kent Crawley on lead guitar, Nick Baker on bass guitar, and Kenneth Hampton on drums.
A history lesson
The first half starts in Africa during the brutal time of slavery. The cast performed old songs like “Go Down Moses,” sung by the whole cast with four different leads, and “O Freedom,” sung by Johnson. It then moves to the southern U.S. with familiar gospel numbers like “Old Time Religion,” sung by Charles Brown and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” by Barbara Armstrong.
For the most part the characters don’t have names, but instead have occupations such as artist, farmer, deacon, seamstress and gardener. They are dressed in the appropriate clothing for their job. They move around on the stage, interacting, but with very little time between songs.
The Golden Age
After intermission the show moves to the 50s when “the Golden Age of Gospel” began, according to Winfrey. Gospel groups were being formed and traveling the “Gospel Highway” after harvest season. The “Gospel Highway” was a winding road just inside the southern Atlantic coastal states where you could hear The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers or Five Blind Boys, just to name a few. Sam Cooke was a member of the Soul Stirrers for a time, eventually crossing over into pop, and was later replaced as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers by other singers such as Lou Rawls.
On stage, the men wore suits and the women donned fancy dresses or colorful robes. In this half of the show it’s explained and also shown that this was an era of music promoters and recordings.
A pitch for arts millage
In an opening plea, Winfrey informed the audience that a millage for the arts will be on the Aug. 7 ballot. Winfrey urged everyone to vote for it to help theatre groups, visual arts, music, and the cultural center maintain their level of work for Flint and Genesee County.
One more weekend
“Give Me That Old Time Religion,” runs through Saturday, with evening shows Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m. and a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m. Call the McCree Theatre at (810) 787-2200 to get advance tickets or buy them at the door.