In The Rapture, On Making the Film by William H. Wiggins, Jr.

In The Rapture, On Making the Film by William H. Wiggins, Jr.

Adapted for Folkstreams by Beverly B. Patterson from Wiggins’ essay, “In the Rapture: The Anatomy of an Afro-American Documentary Film” from In Touch with the Spirit: Black Religious and Musical Expression in American Cinema, a conference held in Bloomington, Indiana, July 9–12, 1992, by the Department of Afro-American Studies.

In the Rapture was the first documentary film ever made of an actual performance of an Afro-American religious drama. Prior to my filming of this popular Indianapolis-based religious play, written and directed by Mrs. Margerine Hatcher, Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus was the best film example of traditional Afro-American religious drama. Filmed in Texas with an all-Negro cast, Williams’ work has much in common with In the Rapture. Both films use the familiar music of the spirituals, and both share the same symbolic characters and images—angels in white robes, sinners in flashy worldly clothing, and the Devil—all set against the backdrop of the cross. Both films also deliver essentially the same message: salvation from the sins of the world can only be found through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as a personal Savior.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the filming philosophies of The Blood of Jesus and In the Rapture. Like most commercial filmmakers, Williams began with a clear aesthetic in mind. Hoping to create an entertaining film that would also turn a profit, he shot certain scenes until the actors, playing to his camera, conveyed precisely the human emotions he sought to capture on film. As an ethnographic filmmaker, I had no such predetermined aesthetic. The only aesthetic I wanted to record was the folk aesthetic of Mrs. Hatcher, her actors, and the congregation of the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. My four cameras played to them, not vice versa.

In this culturally true and technically non-intrusive manner, I sought to capture the religious experience as it unfolded, and to provide those whose religious tradition lacked such experiences with a deeper understanding of ritual drama and appreciation for plays like In the Rapture.

My two-year experience with the Rapture documentary film project began in the summer of 1974 and ended in the summer of 1976. This account is a synthesis of journal entries, field notes, and research grant proposals; correspondence with Mrs. Hatcher and the funding personnel of the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk Arts Program; newspaper articles written by those interested in the project; and all the extensive but deeply rewarding thinking and planning that went into the making of In the Rapture.

Having completed my dissertation for a Ph.D. in Folklore (fittingly, on Emancipation Day), I was at loose ends as to what my next research project should be. I broached the idea of turning my scholarly attention to filming a series of Afro-American religious dramas to filming a series of Afro-American religious dramas, such as Nannie Burroughs’ Slabtown Convention, with my friend and mentor, Henry Glassie of the Indiana University Folklore Institute. I explained to Henry that a student had whetted my interest in filming this particular drama by giving me a copy of the play’s text and describing the Slabtown productions put on annually by his home church in South Bend, Indiana. Henry liked the idea and encouraged me to pursue funding for the project by writing to Alan Jabbour, the Director of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

I soon wrote to Jabbour, who was not long in responding. In what was only the first of the many letters I would receive from Jabbour during our two-year correspondence, he said that he shared “Henry Glassie’s enthusiasm for the idea of filming the dramas for preservation, wider availability, and educational use”; Jabbour also added, or perhaps warned, that such a project would require a good deal of “serious planning.” In what he called “random thoughts,” Jabbour set forth three major criteria that I would have to meet in order to receive funding from his agency:

 “First, you will have to locate a first-rate documentary filmmaker sympathetic with the concept you have evolved and with the people...  Second, you must arrange matters so that the churches will be willing and active participants in the project; it would be nice to plan it so that they could be beneficiaries—say, providing them with a free print of the film. Third, you must arrange for distribution if the end product is to be a published film.”  (Excerpt from Jabbour letter, August 1, 1974)

Difficulties Finding a Filmmaker
Guided by Jabbour”s “random thoughts,” I went to the Indiana University Department of Radio and Television in search of “a first-rate documentary filmmaker” who would be willing to defer to me and the needs of these very special plays and their casts. I sought someone who would allow me to use my experience as a folklore field collector to determine which shots would best capture the true folk beliefs of Afro-American religious drama, someone who would be willing to consult with all of us on such matters as devising a filming schedule. My first attempt at finding such a filmmaker was a disaster. He was a thirty-year-old, headstrong, Ph.D. student in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University who refused even to entertain the merits of my folk-based concept of filming. For him, the director called the shots, and the actors played to his camera, not vice versa.

 In hopes that my second attempt at selecting a filmmaker might go more smoothly, I decided to attend the November 7th and 8th productions of Heaven Bound, another popular religious play, in Atlanta, Georgia. I wanted to familiarize myself thoroughly with this drama by taking photographs of the performance and interviewing members of the cast. I figured that this field-collected information would make it easier for me to explain my ideas about religious drama and my filmmaking philosophy to the next filmmaker that I approached. The trip was pure Dickens: It was the best of times, and it was also the worst of times. Several senior cast members refused to allow me to record or take pictures of the actual drama. They cared little about “Dr.” Wiggins’ academic training or letters of recommendation, and were not going to allow their beloved drama to be part of any film project. Fortunately, the pastor of the church in which the play was being shown did allow me and my young daughter Mary Ellyn to come by on the morning of November 8th and photograph the play’s props and set.

Discovery of In the Rapture
Though not the ample field information I had wanted to collect, these photographs would prove to create the best of times for my documentary film project. When I showed the slides to my course on the black Church in America, two of my students readily identified the props and sets as being part of an Afro-American religious folk drama that I knew nothing about, even though, as they explained, it was produced annually in such Indiana cities as Gary, East Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus. One of my students, Robin Littlejohn, was a member of the Northside New Era Church, the site of the Indianapolis production. She described the play as being, “a religious play about the coming back of the Lord. People in the play are tempted by the devil but the power of Jesus overcomes the devil and brings the people home.”

Costumes are used and the church is staged for the play. It sounded like Atlanta’s Heaven Bound with the addition of Jesus. The description of another student, Sheree Ladd, who was actually a former cast member of the play, too sounded very much like Heaven Bound. She remembered the play as a “processional with the devil trying to prevent members from entering heaven. Soloists are seated in the congregation and as they begin singing the devil searches them out, and tries to persuade them to follow him.”

Ladd also remembered many songs being “used and acted out.” Many of these same songs--“Walk around Heaven,” “Lost Sheep,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Stood on the Banks of Jordan,” and “Heartaches”--were also used in Heaven Bound. In a November 19,1974, letter to Jabbour, I described the new developments in the project, including an invitation to attend an upcoming production of the Slabtown Convention in South Bend, Indiana. I also shared the “startling” fortuitous discovery, courtesy of my students, of the local play that so resembled Heaven Bound. I told Jabbour I had “already begun correspondence” with Reverend N. E. Vincent, Pastor of the Northside New Era Baptist Church, about the play that my students called In the Rapture.

Beginning Fieldwork
Thus began my Rapture fieldwork. On December 14, 1974, I drove to Columbus, Indiana and interviewed Reverend Elzie Lawler, pastor of that city’s 2nd Baptist Church, to find out more about his church’s production of Rapture. I recorded the following notes in my fieldwork journal:

 “Spent approximately three hours with Reverend Elzie Lawler, Pastor 2nd Baptist, Columbus, Ind. In the Rapture was not produced by members of 2nd Baptist. An Indianapolis troupe was invited in to put on the play. Rev. Lawler was impressed with the troupe’s interdenominational flavor and willingness to produce the play for little more than expenses.” (Excerpt from Fieldwork Journal, Columbus, Indiana, December 14, 1974)

My Rapture project was beginning to take shape and beginning to generate interest not only from those directly associated with it but from others outside as well. Just before Christmas holidays, I received an interesting letter from a young Afro-American filmmaker, Warrington Hudlin (later to become a well-known filmmaker), concerning my religious-drama film research. Hudlin had heard about my project from Jabbour and because he shared my interest “in film and black culture” wanted to know “which aspects of the black American religious tradition you are concerned with and your ideas on its presentation through film.” I was happy to share my impressions of a form of Afro-American religious folk drama for which my research and respect were growing daily.

Film Crew and Cost Considerations
January 1975 marked much progress in the project. I was finally able to secure a filmmaker who would meet the high professional standards set by the NEA Folk Arts Program and the artistic standards I had set personally. He was W. Howard Levie, Director of the Indiana University Motion Picture Production/Audio-Visual Center. In a detailed memo I received only a day after our first meeting, Levie made it clear that he was exactly the kind of director I had been looking for:

 “My understanding is that you wish the production style of the film be such that it intrudes upon the performance as little as possible, probably involving the continuous filming of the action from several vantages, which would be edited together.” Levie also included in his memo a good deal of information about budgets, supplies and production matters, what he called a “starting point” for all the “information and documentation” we would need to finalize our plans. He also announced, much to my pleasure that “the motion picture production department would be pleased to participate with you in this venture,” I eagerly shared these developments with Jabbour in a letter stating that “the project is beginning to take final form.” I reported that Dr. Levie had “consented to head the filming crew and place the reputation and considerable equipment of his department behind the project.”

I also reported to Jabbour that I had been in contact with the University’s offices of Research and Development and Research and Advanced Studies/Program Development in search of matching funds for the project. I explained that, because of the scarcity of funds, I was limiting the scope of the project to the filming of one Afro-American religious drama, either the Slabtown Convention or In the Rapture, both still produced in Indiana. I hoped that by narrowing the scope I could strengthen my appeal for matching funds from the many state foundations like Lilly. As I told Jabbour, I was leaning toward the filming of In the Rapture at Bloomington’s black Second Baptist Church. “This arrangement is feasible for several reasons. First, in terms of tradition, we will be able to capture it. There is a troupe in Indianapolis, which goes about the state putting on the play at various churches. So this Bloomington filming will be nothing unusual. Secondly, the church structure has a balcony and other structural features, which will make filming easier and, thirdly, the cost of carrying a film crew on location and renting film equipment is also eliminated.”

Meeting the Rapture Playwright and Her Family
On February 1, 1975, I made the following entry in my fieldwork journal: “Talked with Rev. Vincent after school workshop. He suggested that I contact Mrs. Ida Myles in Indianapolis for information about Rapture and contact for Mrs. Hatcher. Contacted Mrs. Myles and found much information. She will get Mrs. Hatcher’s number and inform her of my interests. She prefers ‘the old’ production of Rapture, the current one is too ‘comical.’“

Thanks to Mrs. Myles help, I was able to set up a personal interview with the family of Mrs. Margerine Hatcher, the playwright of Rapture, and eventually with Mrs. Hatcher herself. In a letter to Jabbour I described at length the impression of the playwright I had gotten from her husband and daughter: that Mrs. Hatcher is a compulsively creative playwright. For example, in addition to In the Rapture, she has conceived and produced several other plays, such as In Times Like These, which is a look at the disintegration of urban family life. Currently she is putting the finishing touches on a new play, The Creation. She has been writing this play for several years and only recently found the voice she wanted for God. I have spoken with Dr. Hudson about the possibility of having a premier of the play as part of next year’s drama schedule at I.U.
 “She and her husband work very closely together. He is the stage manager who makes all of her ideas alive in props and settings. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the sophistication that he has brought to the play. He has designed three sets for In the Rapture, each one designed to fit a different size church. Prior to a performance he normally spends four hours, from 2 to 6 p. m., putting up his scenery.”

I could barely contain my excitement about the project. Perhaps the most satisfying news I had to report to Jabbour was that Mrs. Hatcher herself had called, agreeing to an interview and inviting me to see, and film, a March 9th production of her play. Her endorsement of the project was satisfying indeed.

Proposal to the NEA
February 1, 1975, marked the completion of my NEA Folk Arts proposal for $53,880. Thanks to my conversations with Mrs. Hatcher, the Rapture cast, my film crew, and correspondence with Jabbour, I was able to include in my proposal the ethnographic filmmaking methodology, which would insure that the film reflects the attitudes of the traditional cast and audience.

First, I would videotape an earlier production of the play. These tapes would be closely studied to get a true feel for the drama’s theme and proper production. Second, I would interview in depth each cast member prior to the Bloomington filming to fully understand their ideas about their roles in the play. Third, I would bring Mrs. Hatcher to Bloomington before the filming so she can see the Second Baptist sanctuary and determine how it can be staged. Fourth, after reviewing my interviews, audio- and videotapes, and reading extensively about folklore filmmaking, I would develop a playbook for the filming of the play, which would be shared with my film crew. After they had previewed the videotapes, read my playbook, and studied the church for technical problems of lighting and sound, etc., I would hold a final meeting with Mrs. Hatcher, and the film crew to finalize our filming methods. I felt confident that by the end we would have a ninety-minute film documentary that would truly capture the traditional spirit and art of the hitherto little known Afro-American religious drama, In the Rapture.

First Attempts to Film
On March 9, 1975, after almost a year of planning, I took a student film crew to Indianapolis to film a live performance of In the Rapture at the Church of the Living God. The crew filmed for two hours. This first raw footage gave me several new filming insights as well as revealing some unanticipated problems. For example, we were not able to film the cast devotional services, which were held in the church basement at the same time that the congregation was being led in a similar service upstairs in the sanctuary. We also needed two additional cameras to cover such important scenes as the filming of the acting surrounding the song “Search Me, Lord” since an angel’s wing blocked all of the action from our one stationary camera. Perhaps the most important insight gained from this preliminary filming was that In the Rapture must not be “staged” outside of the church.

Mrs. Hatcher and her cast members perceived their drama to be a religious ritual, not an entertaining spectacle. I shared these ideas and three edited videotapes of this March 9th performance with Jabbour. He wrote back quickly to say that, after viewing only one tape, he “liked it.” Jabbour offered some tactful suggestions about the careful placement of microphones, noting that, in his experience, “film people are sometimes more visually oriented and lavish most of their loving care on the camera, neglecting the recorder. But as you well know, good mike placement can make the difference between clear comprehension and a general rumble of sound.” Jabbour also said that he completely agreed with my contention that the play not be staged outside the church. “I’d even go so far to say,” he added, ”that I wouldn’t even want to stage it in a church without its normal church audience.”

The project really began to come together during the month of May. On May 4, I witnessed my second live performance of In the Rapture at the Southern Baptist Church in Indianapolis. I recorded the following note in my fieldwork journal: “Unlike the first performance the play was staged in only the blue-black light of Mr. Hatcher’s two prop lights. They were suspended from the ceiling this time. I can now fully appreciate his backdrop, after seeing all of his angels, horns, clouds, etc., come alive under the glare of his blue-black lights.”

Notification of Funding
The highlight of all of my Rapture activities was the reception of an official memorandum from NEA’s Folk Arts Program notifying me that my proposal had been funded in the amount of $24,000. In August. I picked up a $12,500 matching grant from the Indiana Committee for the Humanities.

The Plan for Filming
By August the film crew and I were spending long hours reviewing my field-collected rough cuts of the drama and brainstorming over best ways to film the Bloomington production of the drama. I noted in my field journal that Phil was impressed with both the production and our tape of the play. “He wanted to bring his sound men to see it,” and most importantly, “view it several more times.” In my journal I also recorded some of Stockton’s suggestions about splicing cuts of the cast’s devotions with those of the congregation as a means of leading into the play. Stockton had suggested that I try to get a feel for the high and low parts of the play so that he would be ready to shoot. I outlined the following segments:
   (1) “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain”--this mime is similar to Heaven Bound’s climatic fight between the devil and the Lord’s soldier.
       (2) “Oh, Peter! the Lord’s soldier” “Oh Peter!” demonstrates two important factors: (a) the unique procession and (b) initiated impromptu dialogue between Satan and the sinner.
       (3) “Heartaches” shows the fall of the sinner, the final dialogue between the devil and the sinner. Christ is central with the heart, the ultimate defeat of the devil. Select a number that will feature the choir, something like “Climbing Up the Mountain” where they are all singing and not merely call-response.

There were many other technical factors to be considered before we filmed the Bloomington performance—lights, sound systems, power sources. The task was as daunting as it was exciting. On August 30th, Phil Stockton and I met with Mr. and Mrs. Hatcher in Second Baptist to finalize our plans for the staging and filming of In the Rapture.

One week before the October 19th Bloomington filming, I wrote a letter to Jabbour explaining that I had been “up to my ears in nailing down the last minute details.” I included newspaper clippings, Phil Stockton’s carefully detailed schedules, and other indications that the project was finally reaching its climax. I told Jabbour how impressed I had been with Stockton. “What I like about him,”; I noted, “is his readily grasping what we are trying to do.” I also told Jabbour about a Sunday meal we were to have with Mrs. Hatcher, at which Bloomington’s Mayor Frank McClosky was to give the cast a proclamation. As I related to Jabbour, when Mrs. Hatcher heard this news she expressed a joy that made me feel good all over.

Thanks in no small measure to Stockton’s meticulous planning, the October 19th filming went off without a hitch. Newspaper reviews were favorable, as is obvious from the title of an October 20, 1975, article in The Indiana Daily Student: “Jesus Steals the Show: Black Play ‘Rapturous.’” Furthermore, Mrs.Hatcher and the Rapture cast were pleased with the filming of their drama. A few days after the October 19 performance, Mrs. Hatcher wrote me a very warm letter, which read in part: “I just can’t Thank you and the Afro American Institute for what you have done for In the Rapture and you are really included in “Our Rapture Family,” as you named us that, and [the name] is really hanging on. The children are still up in the air over the way we were received and treated in Bloomington. We will never forget it.” After taking the remainder of the month off to rest from the filming process, Phil Stockton’s film crew and I began the arduous task of editing the Rapture performance that we had captured on film. The editing schedule was almost as demanding as the filming schedule had been. Two events in August of 1976 marked the formal end of this taxing but immensely rewarding film project. First, I presented copies of In the Rapture and The Rapture Family to Mrs. Hatcher during a special program at her church. And, second, these two documentary films were entered into Indiana University’s Educational Motion Pictures catalog, making available to everyone a truly unique example of Afro-American religious drama.