In The Rapture: The Black Aesthetic and Folk Drama by William H. Wiggins, Jr.
From Callaloo, No. 2 (Feb., 1978), pp. 103-111.
An essay by the filmmaker adapted for Folkstreams by Beverly B. Patterson
Performances of In the Rapture
Since its initial performance in the Northside New Era Baptist Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, the play has been performed before an ever-expanding audience. From September through May, the ninety- plus member cast performs the drama twice a month in a three state area of Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky. Their performance at the Smithsonian Institution’s 1976 bicentennial Festival of American Folklife drew turn-away crowds and a rave review from The Washington Post. As a result of this national exposure, negotiations are underway to have the cast perform in Haiti and other Caribbean countries.
A Dramatized Black Sermon
In the Rapture is a dramatized black sermon. Its plot closely resembles versions of the “Prodigal Son” sermon, which graphically depicts the rise, fall, and forgiveness of a wayward lad. The play begins with the Devil befriending a sinner. During the course of the play, several soloists attempt to win the sinner over to Christ. But each time the Devil is able to tempt successfully the sinner with fame, money, a beautiful woman, and an expensive car. The Devil soon tires of the sinner, takes back all of his worldly gifts, and breaks the sinner’s heart. In the finale, Jesus comes down from His throne, repairs the grateful sinner’s heart, and gathers all of His followers to join Him in the rapture.
Sources of the Play
Mrs. Margerine Hatcher, a youthful Indianapolis grandmother and staunch member of the Church of the Living God, Temple No. 18, conceived the play in a dream, a similar source of policy players’ lucky numbers, hoodoo doctors’ spells, and ministers’ sermonic descriptions of heaven and hell. Her dream was inspired by Shirley Caesar’s gospel recording of “In the Rapture.”
Religious Dramas in Black Tradition
Like the older Heaven Bound and Old Ship of Zion, In the Rapture dramatizes both man’s life-long moral struggles and his rapturous reward after death. The cast includes: Jesus, Satan, a sinner, a mountain climber, several soloists, a mass choir and a narrator. Two of the play’s major props are a mountain and a red heart that “you can break and put back together again.” In the Rapture is a modern descendant of a historical genre of religious dramas, which predate black film and theatre productions. Black Americans were cramming their churches to see evening productions of the traditional Old Ship of Zion and Nannie Burrough’s Slabtown Convention before there was a Lafayette Theatre [in Harlem] or Oscar Micheaux made his first film. Furthermore, Dr. Randolph Edmonds, Florida A & M University’s Dean Emeritus of black college drama, traces the origins of such initial black stage productions as Shuffle Along back to the popularity of Miss Burrough’s play. More contemporary Broadway plays based on the images and music of these folk dramas include Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, Micki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious. And during the 1940s, Spencer Williams, who played Andy Brown on the Amos ‘N Andy television show, starred in and directed two films, The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death, an adaptation of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones, which were clearly based on Afro-American religious dramas in the tradition of In the Rapture.
Props as Symbols
Unlike these Broadway and Hollywood productions, most of In the Rapture’s props are hand made by Mr. William C. Hatcher, Mrs. Hatcher’s husband. In some instances, he has made several models. For example, his chicken wire and papier-mache mountain proved too cumbersome to store and transport from church to church. It has been replaced with a three-tier plywood mountain, which can be quickly assembled and easily stored. One of the play’s most emotional scenes occurs here. For more than ten minutes the mountain climber fights with Satan as she climbs the mountain. The dramatic climax is reached when she finally breaks free of the devil’s grasp and clutches the outstretched hand of Jesus. The emotion of the scene is sustained by the choir singing the gospel song, “Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain.”
There are numerous other references to the mountain as a symbol of life’s struggles in Afro-American expression. James Baldwin’s novel’s title, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is taken from the spirituals. Two of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons utilize the mountain as a symbol of the black man’s historical struggle for freedom in America and the scaling of its peak as the ultimate act of victory. In his Washington, D.C., “I Have a Dream” sermon, he envisioned the triumphant day when freedom’s sound would envelop the eastern “prodigious hill tops of New Hampshire,” the western “curvaceous slopes of Colorado,” as well as the southern “Stone Mountain of Georgia, Lookout Mountain of Tennessee” and “every hill and mole hill of Mississippi.” And in his Memphis, Tennessee “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” farewell, he shared this vision of future racial freedom with his followers: “I’ve been to the mountaintop! I’ve looked over and seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I know that one day we’ll get there as a people!” What Dr. King saw in a group sense, In the Rapture portrays on an individual level. Musical references to mountains include this stanza from Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues”: Well, if I could holler like a mountain jack, I’d run up on a mountain top and call my baby back.” Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell proudly proclaimed in a recent popular love duet that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to separate them or diminish their love.
Angels’ wings are another prominent play symbol, which has been perfected over the years by Mr. Hatcher. Earlier cardboard models lacked durability and beauty; later wire and papier-mache models proved durable but too cumbersome. Finally, he designed a light, but durable and beautiful pair of wings out of wire, gauze, glue and sequins, which are worn by pairs of male and female angels and two girl cherubs. Angels are a popular image in black American art. They appear in Spencer Williams’ Go Down Death and The Blood of Jesus. Many black Americans laughed at the low-key portrayal of the angel Gabriel by Oscar Polk in the film version of Pastures, while Eddie & Rochester’s Anderson was tormented by angels as he slept in a comical scene of the film Cabin in the Sky. The blues often picture the angel as a heavenly image of the singer’s earthly lover. For example, B. B. King sings these double entendre lyrics in “Sweet Little Angel”:
I’ve got a sweet little angel. I love the way she spreads her wings.
Ooooh, I’ve got a sweet little angel. I say I love theway she spreads her wings.
When she puts her arms around me, I find joy in everything.
Other props built by Mr. Hatcher include a seven foot cross, the Devil’s pitchfork, a ramp by which the heavenly choir ascends into the choir loft, an elevated platform for Jesus’s throne, plywood stumbling blocks, and the Amazing Grace, a heavenly ship built out of plywood and a discarded shopping cart. Passengers are selected at random from the audience to “ride” this ship, piloted by the two male angels, down the aisle of the church, as the choir sings the spiritual “Stood on the Banks of Jordan.” They disembark at the front of the church and are assisted into heaven by the two female angels who seat them near the throne of Jesus. The Rapture’s ship is also a popular black religious symbol. In addition to numerous sermons and songs which refer to Noah’s Ark, there is this spiritual image:
It’s the old ship of Zion.
It’s the old ship of Zion
It’s the old ship of Zion.
Get on board. Get on board.
Profane poetic references to ships include versions of the toast “Shine” and “The Titanic,” as well as Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues,” which contains these haunting lines of despair:
Well, I’m driftin’ and driftin’
I’m like a ship that’s lost at sea.
Ain’t got nobody in this world to care for me.
Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” and Alex Haley’s novel Roots both make creative literary use of the slave ship as the stage of the captured African’s rite of passage into New World slavery.
Water is another popular Afro-American symbol that appears in the Rapture. Discarded plastic dry cleaning bags are masking-taped together and spray painted blue to represent both the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The heavenly choir’s opening processional route takes them across this troubled sea, which is made to undulate by the wind generated by electric fans placed at either end of the sheet. As they cross, they sing:
Oh Peter, don’t be afraid.
Oh Peter, don’t be afraid.
Oh Peter, don’t be afraid.
Walk out on the water.
Don’t be afraid.
Later in the drama it becomes the mythical Jordan River, which all men cross when they die. As the ship deposits its two heaven bound passengers on the river’s shores, the choir sings:
I stood on the banks of Jordan one day.
Lord, have mercy!
I had to see, see the ships go sailing over ...
Stood on the banks, ummmm of Jordan one day.
I had to see the ships roll by.
Langston Hughes’ poem “I’ve Known Rivers” and Joseph A. Walker’s production of the play The River Niger are just two examples of black literature which explore the expressive nuances of this symbol.
Mr. Hatcher’s handmade props are augmented by assorted mass-produced products. Sun glasses enhance the “mystery” of the devil; a Rand-McNally globe symbolizes the heavy burdens of life; an old wig becomes the hair of Jesus; an imitation bird represents the sparrow mentioned in “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”; ketchup, extracted from plastic McDonald packets, simulates the crucified blood of Jesus; and Satan tempts the sinner with a roll of real dollar bills, a red and blue plastic race car, one of the costume “diamond” rings that festoon his fingers, and a beautiful woman dressed in the latest Ebony/Essence fashions. Sheets are ubiquitous. They are cut and sewn into choir robes, painted to form backdrops of the set, and used as a heavenly cloud cover for the church’s prayer rail and pulpit furniture.
In addition to these homemade and mass-produced symbols, In the Rapture also draws heavily on several Afro-American folk narrative devices. Like Afro-American blues, ballads and sermons, its narrative structure is episodic. Just as, with every performance, Robert Johnson altered the verses of “Crossroads Blues” and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter changed the stanzas of “John Henry” and the Reverend C. L. Franklin rearranged the structure of “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” Mrs. Hatcher does not make up the order of her play’s songs until moments before the pageant begins. Each of these ten songs is complete in and of itself. Only the impromptu narrative of Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrish links them into an artistic whole. Albert Murray’s novel Train Whistle Guitar utilizes this traditional narrative technique. For just as each of the encounters that Mrs.Hatcher’s sinner has with the devil are complete episodes, each encounter that Albert Murray’s character Scooter has with southern life is complete.
Also borrowed from the folk aesthetic of black Americans is the communal concept that art evolves out of the creative call-response interaction established between the artist and his audience. Hence, like a Saturday night jam session or a Sunday morning worship service, the length, beauty and emotional intensity of each In the Rapture performance is an artistic barometer of that audience’s response. A “warm” and responsive congregation inspires the players to give a spirited and long performance, but a “cold” and unresponsive audience begets a short, lack-luster performance. Like Earth, Wind and Fire and Gladys Knight and the Pips, the cast of In the Rapture has a pre-performance devotion to spiritually prepare them for this creative interchange.
Improvisation plays a major role in developing and sustaining this artistic communal feeling. If the play is not being well received, Mrs. Hatcher will change the order of her songs in mid performance. The devil and sinner’s witty dialog changes with every performance and has evolved over the years from pantomime to speech. Through a system of trial and error, they discarded lines which proved not to be funny with their audiences, but they kept comical banter like these lines uttered by the devil after he has taken the sinner’s heart and reduced him to rags:
Look at him! Raggedy! Shoeless! My right hand man! Remember how cleeeeean he was? (Loud jeering laughter.)
(Here the devil turns away from the sobbing sinner and faces the congregation with the sinner’s red plywood heart held firmly in his two outstretched hands.)
I don’t neeeeed him. I’ve got allllllll of you out here! (Loud laughter)
Certainly the play’s most sustained use of improvisation is Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrish’s narration. She has no script. Instead she must repeatedly improvise a linking narrative thread for the play’s ten songs with personal narrative experiences like this one used to introduce “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”:
You know, one day me and my husband went to the Dairy Queen. And I said, “Oh Baby, there’s a baby bird.” And he said, “Where you come from! That’s a full-grown sparrow.” And I said, “Well, you know what. If his eye ... if his eye is on that sparrow ... then I know he watches me!”
The first-person style of this passage is the narrative cornerstone of the bluesman’s singing style, while many of Langston Hughes’ poems like “Mother to Son” and Ernest Gaines’ novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, are two prime examples of its literary use. Repetition and rhythm play major roles in elevating the drama’s emotional level.
Clarence Hatcher’s (another one of the Hatchers’ sons) choir directing is based in a large measure on his creative alteration of the volume, pitch and rhythm of song phrases. He evokes these results from his choir by employing directing techniques common to many gospel choir directors. Volume is increased by circling his index fingers around his ears and it is lowered by placing an index finger at a right angle to his pursed lips. Pitch is raised each time he unsheaths his rapier right arm from its bloomed sleeve scabbard, with a dramatic skyward thrust. The number of times he wishes a phrase to be repeated is signaled by the fingers he holds aloft. And intricate driving rhythms are beaten out by his flailing hands on the choir’s communal voice congo drum. He utilizes each of these musical devices when he directs “Climbing Up the Mountain.” As the men stridently bass the phrase, “Climbing up the ... ,” the women sing in a continuing spiral of raised octaves the complete line: “Climbing up the mountain, trying to reach the TOP!” And during the song’s climax the choir admonishes: “You ought to pray sometimes!” before repeating the word “yes” as the mountain climber and the devil fight their way around the mountain. This volume, pitch and rhythm are dramatically stopped as the climber reaches the top and struggles to place her hand in the hand of Jesus. Only the grunts and groans of the two combatants are heard during this final struggle, which ends with her clasping the hand of Jesus in final triumph over evil. The emotional impact of this scene is unforgettable.
Repetition and Rhythm
Albert Murray and John Oliver Killens are two black novelists whose works make literary use of repetition and rhythm. Murray affirms the sacred and secular manifestations within Afro American culture, with this remembrance of Sunday morning worship that Scooter has in “Train Whistle Guitar”:
“Nothing makes me remember Miss Sister Lucinda Wiggins and Miss Libby Lee Tyler and all that so much as when two trumpet players trading blues choruses on an up-tempo dance arrangement, with the trombones and saxophones moaning and shouting in the background. Because that was also what I used to think about back when Little Buddy Marshall and I used to stand outside the Masonic Temple (or the Boon Men’s Hall Ballroom) after a baseball game or a picnic listening to Sonny Traver and Dewitt Ellis blowing back and forth at each other in Daddy Gladstone Giles’ Excelsior Marching and Social Band.” (pp. 96-97). On the other hand, Killens’ novel Sippi reads like a sermon, its ever-shorter episodes of individual struggle for black manhood, climaxing with his central character, Chuck Othello Chaney, emerging as a young proud black man. Poetic examples of this technique include Maya Angelou’s “Harlem Hopscotch,” which transposes the cadences of a children’s game to the printed page, and “No Loser, No Weeper,” which captures the cadence of black conversation.
Traditional humor also appears in the play. Audiences always laugh at the sinner’s struggling, like a black Atlas, under the load of his Rand-McNally globe or his futile clumsy attempts at mountain climbing. His heartbroken despair is humorously tempered by the white jagged cloth handwritten sign of “Flip” Wilson’s epigram “The devil made me do it” pinned to the back of his frayed and dingy green coverall suit, as he kneels before the feet of Jesus. A moment of visual and verbal humor occurs when the devil diverts the Sinner’s reverent gaze at Jesus’ sparrow to a lustful leer of a beautiful woman. The sinner’s wide-eyed “once over” of the temptress’s pulchritude evokes a swelling peal of audience laughter which peaks, after the punch line: Whoooooo weeeeeee! Her (the soloist’s) eye might be on the sparrow, but my eye’s on YOU! (The sinner puts his arm around the woman’s waist, as they began walking up the aisle). Look at THIS! Whoooooo weeeeee! Near the drama’s end this voluptuous woman is the subject of this comic exchange between the devil and the sinner.
Devil: What about that beautiful woman I gave you?
Sinner: Yeah. Uh, just a minute, buddy.
Sinner: Man, that woman had me working sixteen hours a day! She had me washing my clothes and washing her clothes. She had me ironing my clothes and ironing her clothes. And she took all my money and didn’t even give me change for cigarettes or nothing. And besides (spoken softly as the sinner begins to cry), she tried to put me in a trick bag.
Cong.: (Loud laughter.)
Film examples of the beautiful black temptress include Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky and Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Toni Morrison’s central character in the novel Sula is a powerful literary example. In addition to the temptress, Satan and Jesus are two other traditional images which appear in the play. The devil’s evil power is muted by humor. Reflections of the Yoruba deity Legba, Heaven Bound’s devil, and Richard Pryor’s Exorcist routine bounce off of this characterization. The play reflects this spiritual image of the devil.
Satan’s mad and ain’t I glad.
Hand me down my silver trumpet, Gabriel.
He lost the soul he thought he had.
Hand me down my silver trumpet Lord.
His superior adversary, the silently cool Jesus, is also found in such spiritual lyrics as:
They crucified my Lord
And he never said a mumbling word
Not a word ... Not a word ... Not a word.
A Shared Aesthetic
This masking is evident in other cultural lifestyles. The icy stares of an urban pimp, as well as the cool basketball style of Clyde Frazier are in this tradition. Musically, you can cite the earlier “cool” jazz of Miles Davis. On stage, there is the character Blue in Lonne Elder’s play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, and Chester Himes has created a pair of super cool black Harlem cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who shoot, cut and con their way through the pages of such detective novels as For the Love of Imabelle, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill The Big Gold Dream, All Shot Up, The Heat’s On, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Blind Man With a Pistol. It should be clear from this essay that both folk and fine art expressions of Afro-Americans are ultimately created out of a shared cultural aesthetic pool of symbols, images and narrative devices. To paraphrase “Flip” Wilson, much of what the older “In the Rapture” audiences “see” in their darkened churches is what their younger “fly” Broadway audiences “get” in glittering stage productions.