Black ‘Box’ Is Best
First came Jesus Christ Superstar, then Godspell, and now the best modern musical to date about the life of Jesus, the all-black Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. Conceived and directed by award-winning Vinnette Carroll (Dont Bother Me I Can’t Cope) and composed by Alex Bradford (also from Dont Bother Me), the musical had an extended run at Washington, D. C.’s historic Ford’s Theatre before going to New York. Bradford, who is director of music of the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, also sang and performed in the show. His wife Alberta plays the piano.
Part one in song, modern dance, and narration tells the passion of Christ. Wearing costumes muted in color with geometric designs, the performers enter one at a time to begin the breathlessly energetic gospel show. The audience is immediately introduced to Jesus. A soloist, designated as the preacher, asks the audience, “Do you know Jesus?” Throughout the production, which, like Godspell, is not confined to the stage, the audience is questioned and cajoled about Jesus. There is no waffling here about who Jesus is or about why he died and rose from the grave.
The combo and singers blend well and keep the audience clapping and shouting. But the dancers provide much of the visual enjoyment. During the death and crucifixion of Jesus, drums and dancers achieve a rare perfection. As the singers intone “kill him kill him,” Jesus’ body jerks and moves painfully with each drum beat, the two beautifully synchronized. Jesus hangs motionless with a staff under his arms between two other cast members for the Good Friday crucifixion scene.
The title of the show comes from the warning Pilate’s wife gives her husband before he gives the order to crucify Jesus. She has a dream and tells Pilate, “You don’t know what the Lord told me cause you weren’t there. Pilate, your arm’s too short to box with God.”
While Jesus hangs from the blocks-built hill on stage, the preacher walks through the audience, singing, “Somebody here don’t believe in Jesus. I’m glad I believe.” As he kneels at the foot of the hill Jesus is taken from the cross and laid on the stage floor. After a moving a capella solo the dancers surround Jesus, who leaps in the air, is caught by three men, and is carried back to the top of the hill triumphantly alive.
Critics who did not enjoy part two perhaps did not understand its purpose, or have never been to a black worship service. In part one we learn what happened to Jesus, and in part two we have the response of performers and audience. The cast comes out in orange costumes reminiscent of choir robes. And the first song reinforces that this is the praise part of the performance. “Didn’t I tell you he’d be all right?” they exclaim. All during the second half Jesus stands with his staff in a yellow robe at the top of the hill, the risen Lord reigning over his congregation.
The structure of the second half, like the structure of a black worship service, provides freedom for ad lib lines and innovative singing, depending on the enthusiasm and nature of the audience. The night I attended the woman who sang “I love you Jesus” finished the song with her face wet with tears. As she moved from center stage with piano and organ holding the last chord, the audience clapped and shouted amen. She began singing again, a moving improvisation of the gospel song, obviously not part of the staging.
Members of the audience testified to their faith in Jesus in responding to such questions as “Do you know Jesus?” and “Does Jesus take care of you?” The cast closed the show with everyone singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” If the house lights hadn’t been raised, the audience would surely have stayed for another two hours of singing and praise.
Certainly Your Arms Too Short to Box With God is the clearest presentation of the Gospel seen on any stage. Add to that good singing, fine instrumentation, and excellent dancing and you have a combination that is hard to beat.
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