Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club. Because No News is Bad News.

Not a Prayer 

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! is mired in mediocrity.

In some ways, the invention of PowerPoint computer software was one of civilization's sadder moments. It seduces people into assuming that they have actually organized information when, in reality, all they've done is put a lot of slick-looking bullets in front of random facts and phrases.

In a similar way, the new Karamu show Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! is a theatrical version of an empty-headed (and overly exclamation-pointed) PowerPoint presentation. Billed as "a history lesson for the entire family," this bloodless chronological march through the history of gospel music turns the avatars of this compelling musical idiom (Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, et al.) into ciphers on a timeline. And it's a shame, because gospel music deserves a much more thoughtful and involving tribute.

Clearly, all those involved have their hearts in the right place. The writer and director of the show, Otis Sallid, wants to honor those who wrote and performed gospel music over the years. But by trying to encompass so much calendar time, he runs out of performance time -- cutting many songs down to 30-second snippets that don't allow the music to grab hold. Plus, there's virtually no insight into the personalities who have made gospel the transcendent, spiritual force that it is in so many lives.

The uneven 10-person cast does hit some high points and gets the audience shouting their responses. Among the women, who are far better than the men at singing this material, Bernita Ewing shakes the seats with her version of "I Looked Down the Road" and "My Tribute." And Ra-Deon Kirkland soars high to raise goose bumps with "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way" and "Goin' Up Yonder." On the male side, Michael Burns and Eddie B. Sands appear to be having the most fun and at least exude some personality.

But the effect created by much of the music feels oddly muted, either by flaccid arrangements or awkward performances under the guidance of musical director Leonard Burks. Just when you think you're ready for a real hand-clapping, foot-stomping frenzy with "Oh Happy Day," the singers back off and never push the melody to its peak. Sadly, none of the three male singers or the Provisions of God quartet have the pipes to faintly echo the vocal power of gospel groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

Sallid's dry narration is further sabotaged by Neal Hodges, who speaks as if he's reading it for the first time, stumbling over some words and ignoring anything resembling pace. Even the costumes by Darryle Johnson, often a highlight at Karamu, here look like early J.C. Penney -- largely a random assortment of drab outfits you'd pass right over on a sale rack.

Here's hoping that Sallid follows his passion for gospel music and retools this show by focusing on the people who made gospel great, and assembling a cast that's consistent in quality from top to bottom.

Tags: , ,

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Cleveland Scene works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Cleveland and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Cleveland's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

September 9, 2020

View more issues

Most Popular

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


Staff Pick Events

  • 78th Street Studios Third Friday Art Walk @ 78th Street Studios

© 2020 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 241-7550
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation