An ensemble is very key to the success of a theatrical production. Whenever I go to a theater performance, I make sure to take in those who, while not in the spotlight, still pack a visual and aural wallop.
Avant Bard’s production of The Gospel at Colonus, showcases very critical and accomplished work from the Women’s Ecumenical Choir under the leadership of Minister Becky Mays Jenkins. The seven women from Women’s Ecumenical Choir are a divine, spiritual presence who sing with sweetly powerful, wholly harmonized voices. When they sing and sway in unison through nearly 20 original musical numbers composed by Bob Telson with lyrics by Lee Breuer and Telson, their voices rise with ease to the rafters of Theatre II at Gunston and then up to Heaven, I am certain.
Under the musical direction of e’Marcus Harper-Short and seated on audience left, the Choir is not secondary to anything. As The Gospel at Colonus unfolded not only did the Choir perform with animation when singing that added a musical “call and response” to the play’s storyline, but they were always in the moment reacting to what was happening before them with facial and physical actions without saying a word.
Before my interview with Minister Becky Mays Jenkins I took the opportunity to check-in with Jennifer L. Nelson, who directed The Gospel At Colonus to learn more about the Women’s Ecumenical Choir. Nelson noted that:
My initial concept was to have the choir greet the audience members outside the theatre, then usher them in as though everyone was part of one congregation coming together for an annual event. For logistical reasons, that idea had to be modified but we were still able to hold onto the notion that the choir could serve as kind of a welcoming committee. The sense of familiarity that is engendered as they casually enter greeting the audience, immediately makes the audience feel not only welcome but engaged with what is about to happen. That genuine warmth emanates from the ladies themselves, not from anything I did!
And here is my interview with Minister Becky Mays Jenkins, Women’s Ecumenical Choir.
David Siegel: Why did you establish the Women’s Ecumenical Choir?
Minister Becky Mays Jenkins: It was really divinely inspired as I was planning a women’s day program at Ebenezer Baptist Church. I thought it was only going to be for that service but God had other plans. So in March 2007 the women’s ecumenical choir was born
How did the Women’s Ecumenical Choir become involved as performers with Avant Bard’s The Gospel of Colonus?
I was contacted by e’Marcus Harper-Short, the music director of the production. He was familiar with my choir and he and I had previously done some projects together.
Are there particular songs and lyrics that just reach into your heart and soul?
I have always been partial to “How Can I See You Through My Tears.” I think of it as a prayer to God asking when life is going very rough – how do I see you through my tears – and what I have learned is that God is still there even in my tears.
Why do you think that the music and songs the Women’s Ecumenical Choir sing resonate so deeply with audiences?
We sing the gospel which is good news. It elevates and inspires and gives hope to people for situations that sometimes seem hopeless.
Please tell me a bit about the women who perform as the Choir in The Gospel of Colonus?
The women are artists in their own right.
–Robin Walker Shanks– native Alexandrian who is currently the leader of the singing angels of Alexandria. She has recorded several CDs and toured with me in Europe. She is an ordained minister and member of Harvest Assembly Baptist Church where Reverend Johnnie Abram is the Pastor.
–Tranita Randolph– A native Alexandrian who has been singing most of her life. She attended Duke Ellington performing arts school and was further tutored by the late Wesley Boyd. She has also provided background vocals for Richard Smallwood and the Hawkins family. She is a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Reverend Albert Jackson is the Pastor.
–Krystal Cottman– A native of New York and an accomplished cellist and singer. She has served as a minister of music at several churches and has been a member of prominent singing groups throughout the Washington Metropolitan area.
–Sandy Taylor Hawkins – A native Alexandrian who has been singing since the age of two. She is a much sought after soloist and is a member of Bethlehem Baptist Church where Reverend Darrell White is the pastor. She has also traveled abroad with me. By the way, she is also my baby sister.
–Michelle Perkins Peterson– she is an ordained minister of the gospel and minister of music. She has appeared in Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity and traveled abroad with me as part of the Deep River Choir headed by renowned jazz saxophonist David Murray. She is a member of the Temple of Praise where Bishop Glenn Staples is the pastor.
–Kimberly Young– A native Alexandrian who began singing at the age of five. She is a certified lay servant in the Alexandria district of the United Methodist Church. She is one of the best contralto/ tenors I know. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Warner Theatre, the Lincoln theater just to name a few. She is a member of the Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church where Reverend James Daniely is the Pastor.
If you could invite audiences, especially Millennials, who may not be regular theater goers to see and hear The Gospel at Colonus what would you say ?
I would tell them it is a great story of tragedy, forgiveness and redemption. It so coincides with things in today’s society.
And one last question. I understand you performed in the original The Gospel of Colonus. Please tell me a bit about that experience?
It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. We broke all of Arena Stage’s box office records. It was awesome working with legends like Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly, Clarence Fountain, and the Five Blind Boys and the Soul Stirrers.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Gospel at Colonus plays through March 26, 2017, at Avant Bard performing at the Gunston Arts Center, in Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.
Review: ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ at Avant Bard by Julia Hurley.
In the Moment: Q&A With Bob Telson, Composer of The Gospel at Colonus – Now Playing at Avant Bard by David Siegel.