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Tambourines to Glory - A spirited production offers an infectous dose of morality.

BY Nathan A. Fluegel

Tambourines to Glory is fun. Some might even say it's exciting to see a staged allegory about good and evil with with singable songs and laughable jokes. This touring production offers some good acting, some good singing, and some of both that is enthusiastic, if not great. It's a nice way to spend a night at the theater that's acceptable to 75 percent of the family (and the other 25 percent will probably come along just to be sociable). The story's allegorical axis is clearly from a different era; it's a morality play at heart. Playwright Langston Hughes shows us that even well-intentioned persons from a Christian upbringing can be led astray. Though, clearly updated (with references to Mark Fuhrman as Satan, am!ong others), it's a story from a different time. The problems are familiar, but portrayed in a more forgiving light than they would be today. The key value offered by Hughes is that religion can offer solutions to today's problems and faith offers us the promise of redemption.

Tambourines to Glory is the story of two down-on-their-luck women, Laura Wright Reed and Essie Belle Johnson, who decide to found a church on a curbside as a way to fulfill their economic needs. Their reasons for creating the “Tambourine Temple" aren't entirely pure, but they develop a large following of other down-on-their-luckers and begin to see the light. Their success is complicated by the presence of Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax, a mysterious, enchanting man who sets his sights on charming "Sister" Laura. .

Tambourines to Glory is produced by the African American Theater Arts Troupe, a student-centered company founded and run at UCSC since 1991. This latest production fits into their strict mission to produce theater by and about African Americans and their experiences, but it offers lessons that are valuable to everyone, regardless of their eth nic background. Although the individual performances are uneven, the production as a whole maintains a strong spirit that makes the evening quite worthwhile.

Since this is a story about the eternal battle between God and the Devil, the most important dramatic personage in the story is Buddy Lomax, the person)fication of Satan. All the conflict radiates from this character, and Joseph F. Brown carries the role off with remarkable poise. His charm brings the audience into the story to begin with, and his portrayal of the character's underhanded sense of honesty keeps an obvious storyline interesting.

For a clever combination of humor and spiritual zeal, Nandi Ellis tums in a dandy perfommance as Birdie Lee, an alcoholic; woman of the community who is one of the - quickest and strongest converts in Laura and Essie's flock. Through her quirky manner- : isms and great sense of comic timing, she is the funniest member of the cast. At the same time, she provides one of the strongest portrayals of religious fervor and is quite conyincing. The fact that she manages the light and funny lines while keeping the religious aspects so serious is quite an accomplishment.

For sheer vocal guts, the top prize is split between Clifford E. Lewis, Jr. and Fitima Morris. Lewis portrays Deacon Crow, a ~ reformed criminal who becomes one of the most popular members of the church when it comes time to "witness." His lead performance in "I Wanna Testify" toward the end of the first act is one of the musical high points of the show. He is in touch with the spiritual roots of what he's singing, and his well of musical talent is deep. Morris' per-; fommance as "Sister" Laura Wright Reed, one of the founders of the "Tambourine Temple," is dramatically spotty, but she is adept musically, hitting her high mark toward the end of the show in-herdramatic interpretation of "I Have Sinned." It's the sort of vocal perfor mance that demands (and receives) applause from the audience, for sheer bravery if naught else.

Above and beyond the serious moral messages the play may offer, the joy and excitement of the church community portrayed within is infectious. The Santa Cruz audience with which I saw the show clapped its hands, chimed in with a righteous "Amen" at moments that were not scripted and hissed at the underhanded tactics employed by the despicable Mr. Lomax. It's a worthwhile way to spend a Saturday evening, if you're in the neighborhood of the Oldemeyer center in Seaside.


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