THE CHOIR AT Lexington, Kentucky’s Imani Missionary Baptist Church is revving up for worship, focusing on things above as the cry of the organ and dissonant blues riffs of the piano fill the large, modern sanctuary. The director gives Cathy Rawlings the signal, and she strolls out in front. As they launch into the spiritual “I’m Glad,” she closes her eyes and offers up a silent prayer. Satisfied, she takes the microphone and begins to recite a poem, “The Creation” by famed Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson:
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And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
Published in 1920 and written as a tribute to African-American religious oratory, “The Creation” occupies a hallowed place in black American culture. In the poem, God seems to take on the style of a black preacher, walking around, emphasizing specific syllables, and pausing for breath at particular points during the creation story.
People across the sanctuary are responding to Rawlings’ impassioned rendition, lifting their hands and interspersing her pauses with shouts of praise. By the time she comes to the part where God breathes life into humanity, “Like a mammy bending over her baby,” many are in tears. Even with long experience in music and on the stage, Rawlings herself is overcome with emotion.
“It’s just hard to get through it without just breaking down,” she recalls later, “without just shouting and rejoicing, because God is real.” She shakes her head as punctuation. “This is not a play. God is real.”
Now in her 50s, Rawlings has spent most of her life in church choirs. But she has also taken her commitment to music and to the stage beyond the church doors by forming the Agape Theatre Troupe, a nonprofit, all-volunteer group dedicated to preserving African-American culture in the Bluegrass State and entertaining the public at large. Founded in 2000 as Imani’s Family Life Center Theatre, the troupe’s roots can be traced back to experiences Rawlings had as an actress with the Actors Guild of Lexington, where she received three Raymond A. Smith Excellence in Theatre Awards for her performances in “Yellowman,” “The Old Settler,” and “The Vagina Monologues.”
“I had been in an Actors Guild production connected with the Roots and Heritage Festival—that’s an African-American festival that happens here in Lexington every year,” Rawlings explains. “The director at Actors Guild thought it was important to connect with the African-American community. I think the first all-black production was in ’96. I auditioned for that and got a part. Not many black people came to the show. They did another show, which I was in, and again there was such a struggle to get black people to attend.”
Disappointed by the small African-American turnout, Rawlings began contemplating that community’s apparent lack of connection to the theater arts. “A lot of black people in the area hadn’t been exposed to theater,” Rawlings says. “Then along came Tyler Perry [the film writer/director, known for the Madea series, started his career with touring stage productions], which is not theater but entertainment—so a lot of black people think that’s theater, but it’s not. I was asked to do a play for a fund-raiser, and it had a great turnout. I found ... that for 90 percent of the audience, that was their first time seeing a play. That’s when I said, ‘Wow—there’s a need for it.’”
Enter the Agape Theatre Troupe. For dramatic talent, Rawlings turned to the most creative place she knew: the church choir. She then mounted a well-received production of “Flyin’ West.” But she quickly found that her audiences wanted music. “That’s what black people expect,” she howls with infectious laughter. “If you’re not singing, it’s nothing.”
Rawlings drew on her extensive musical experience to write and direct plays with a spiritual message that incorporated the sounds of the black church: “Above My Head,” “Church, Roll On!” and “At the Crucifixion: A Play for the Easter Holiday.” But the troupe’s watershed moment came with its September 2009 production of playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s “Gee’s Bend” at the Lexington Opera House. Set in the isolated hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and interspersed with haunting gospel songs, the play recounts the story of Sadie, a young mother who joins the Selma civil rights march in 1965, against her husband’s express wishes. When she comes home beaten to a pulp, he locks her out of the house to teach her a lesson, leading her to realize that she can raise money for bus fare north and escape her life in the South by selling her handmade quilts. The success of the one-night-only engagement—the 940-seat opera house was nearly sold out—sent a clear message to Rawlings, she told the Lexington Herald-Leader the following year: “It told me that the community was ready for a mainstream African-American theater.”
Next on the bill was Rawlings’ ambitious production of her original play “The Duke, the Women, the Music,” a musical based on the female singers in Duke Ellington’s legendary band, in December 2010. Featuring the vocal talents of eight women, the play was both entertaining and informative, with swanky musical numbers and tales of the era’s racism. The troupe followed that up with “Voices of Freedom,” a series of monologues adapted from the narratives of slaves living in the Lexington region in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the genius of “Voices of Freedom” was that Rawlings made it a collaborative effort, inviting internationally known Kentucky poet Nikky Finney to read original poems onstage as part of the production.
“Her voice brought a new meaning to the monologues,” Rawlings says, explaining that the addition of Finney’s work posed an implicit question to the audience: “What does that tell you, from these monologues of actual slaves to Nikky’s poetry? Has nothing really changed, and whose fault is it? It’s not white people’s fault.”
With its combination of narratives, poems, and music, “Voices of Freedom was, noted the Lexington Herald-Leader, “part gritty history lesson, part performing arts monument to ancestors, and part impromptu church service ... the kind of brutal, difficult-to-watch details of history to which young generations should be exposed.” And this was precisely her aim, Rawlings says, mourning that young black Kentuckians seem to lack awareness of their cultural heritage.
“I like to empower and educate. I worry about our young people. I worry about black America because there’s no family structure anymore. Way back then it used to be Big Mama or Granny or Grandmama, someone in a household could hold a family together, and now Grandmama—she’s in the nail shop with green extensions in her hair, getting ready to go out and party, so there’s no one left to mold the black mind anymore. For the first time I’m working with some teenagers now, doing a workshop for our summer camp. We have a goal to reach out, to help the young ones, to show them something other than a Beyoncé video. I love Beyoncé, but to show them something different—that’s our goal.”
In recent years, the Agape Theatre Troupe has become a cornerstone of the Roots and Heritage Festival. In 2011 the group performed “Sweatin’ da Bluez—da Muzikle” there, Rawlings’ musical adaptation of “Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston,” a play written by Kentucky native and Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe. “Zora had these stories,” Rawlings starts, breaking into a wide grin. “I just love her folklore. There is a musical score that goes with it, but I didn’t quite like that, so I ventured out and I put some blues with it—John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Big Mama Thornton. It’s another attempt to tell people about Zora, about John Lee Hooker, about the blues. Maybe if they can hear and see it onstage, they will go and do a little more research, take an interest in it.”
Rawlings returns to lessons she learned from singing in the church choir to explain the appeal of her troupe: “You observe the singers who just sing, and the ones with the life experience to back it up. I have experienced so many singers that have grown spiritually, and to sing of the goodness of God and what God has done for you and what God has brought you through—it’s just unbelievable.”
Jason Howard is the co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music (October 2012), with permission from University Press of Kentucky. Copyright 2012 UPK.