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Release: Feb. 11, 2000

'God's Trombones' brings poetry of James Weldon Johnson to stage

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University Theatres Gallery series will present "God's Trombones," a theatrical staging of James Weldon Johnson's poetry during African-American History Month, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 24-26; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27 in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

The production is directed by graduate student William Caise, with contributions by costume designer Tammy Laisnez, musical director Anthony Currin and lighting designer Troy Hornung.

The text of "God's Trombones" is drawn from Johnson's "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse," published in 1927. Although he was an agnostic, Johnson used these poems to pay tribute to the expressive, musical, oratorical tradition of American black preaching. He was inspired by a trip he made through rural Georgia as a freshman in college.

"I feel that the significance of the show lies in the important role that the Preacher has historically played in our culture, with one of the clearest and strongest examples being Martin Luther King," Caise explains. "The Preacher has historically been a leader who, like King, addresses the needs and concerns of the community in an unflinching manner, and I feel that Black History Month is an appropriate time to celebrate these often unsung heroes in word and song."

Johnson, who was born in 1871, is an important and versatile figure in American literary culture and social history. As a writer, he produced poetry, fiction, essays and lyrics. He was also a pioneer in black publishing and an early leader in the NAACP, and his writing was a strong influence on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Unlike many American people of color in his generation, Johnson did not come from a recent familial experience of slavery. His father was born free of mixed ancestry and his mother was from the West Indies, of French and black Haitian descent. And yet the inequalities of post-slavery American society were evident in his early life. In order for him to receive a high-school education, his parents had to send him to Atlanta, because there was no high school available to blacks in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., only a few years before the turn of the century.

After graduating from college, Johnson returned to his hometown to become the principal of a segregated school, and during that time became the first black lawyer in Florida history. In 1895 Johnson founded the first black newspaper in the United States, "The Daily American," in which he published editorials on racial issues.

Johnson had written poetry since his college days, and in 1900 he wrote the poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which, set to music by his brother, became the "Negro National Anthem" decades later at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Together the brothers wrote more than 200 songs for Broadway musicals.

In the early years of the 20th century Johnson served his country as the ambassador to Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Azores, before completing a novel about "passing for white," "The Autobiography of an ExColored Man" in 1912. This book became an influential text in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Johnson was also the first black secretary of the NAACP, where he worked for almost 15 years. Johnson taught Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville from 1930 until his death in a car-train accident in 1938. He was buried holding a copy of "God's Trombones," his personal favorite of the books he had written.

Admission to the Gallery series production will be $5 ($3 for UI students, senior citizens and youth 17 and younger) at the door.

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