Sometimes ministers have to answer the call of the Lord on short notice. And sometimes bad things happen when ministers have to race away unexpectedly. The Arena Players, who are wrapping up the end of their 62nd season as America’s Oldest Continually Operating African-American Community Theatre, bring a revival of The Church Mortgage Burning to their stage and it is a comic hoot! Written and Directed by Robert Russel, this heart-warming, soul-touching church-based and faith-driven comedy drives home a great many messages when it comes to problems that arise in the Peter & Paul Baptist Church when the parish’s beloved Reverend is suddenly called away. A robbery, missing money, and accusations spread like wild fire as the parish takes to blaming one another for the problems that have suddenly befallen them in the good Rev’s absence. A remarkably engaging performance, which feels a great deal like a church service where the audience is encouraged to nod, clap, hum, and sing along, this show has a little bit of something for everyone whether they are fans of comedy, fans of mystery, or just enjoy a good afternoon at the theatre.
With all the trappings and tribulations of a true mystery story but all the heart and soul of an earnest church story, Playwright and Director Robert Russel sets out to prove that church people are just ordinary people and is highly successful in his quest. With carefully crafted caricature constructs of these people, which you will find in any church or really anywhere in real life, Russel brings home the idea that people who go to church aren’t perfect. They sin, they have troubles, they have attitudes and moments where they can’t keep their mouths shut! But they have love in their hearts and come together when they need to, and that is one of the driving messages behind his story. Ripe with biting comedy, particularly when it comes to the personalities of some of these characters, the play winds itself into a faith-driven conclusion that reminds the audience that the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways.
There are some impressive voices featured under the Musical Direction of Grafton Gray. Joyce Campbell, who also plays Sister Delores late in the second act of the show, comes to the stage between the first and second scenes of Act I to sing a beautifully moving gospel hymn. Carltaise Ransom, who dons a whacky silver-gray wig, leads the choir for “Run and Tell That” a different and very up-tempo gospel hymn that really gets the parish and the audience rocking with vibrant energy of the service as he sings. Ransom as well as Tyrone Requer (who wears a similar wig and plays the silent “Choir Director” character) both adapt hilarious physicalities for their aging characters. Requer in particular shuffles and staggers across the stage in a manner that is all too familiar to anyone who’s ever assisted or watched one of their elder family members make their way through the pews at church. Requer all but steals the show when directing the choir with his campy over-the-top gestures and hysterical dancing.
Sister Jean (Gina Lee) is a real firecracker, ummhmm! When Lee blasts that line “My bladder may be weak but my ears are strong!” the audience goes to town with uproarious laughter. Lord have mercy on her angry outburst as she goes after Brother Floyd in one of the funnier moments in the opening scene. She’s ready to strangle the living life out of him and makes Sister Jean’s frustrations extremely relatable for anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar situation. Blazing with righteous persecution, Lee delivers that honesty that only an angry woman trying to sniff out the truth can have when she goes after Brother Floyd in the church basement.
But Sister Jean ain’t got nothing on Sister Bee (Cynthia Forbes) when it comes to attitude. Forbes is throwing some serious saucy shade as Sister Bee from the moment she struts onto the stage. Living up to the stereotype of that sassy character, Forbes brings the rough reality of Sister Bee to a really radiant life. Just like Gina Lee’s portrayal of Sister Jean, both women have exceptional comic timing and really know how to bring out the laughter in these crazy situations, especially when it comes to taking turns confessing at the lecturn during service. Brother William (John Carrington) and Brother Reggie (Thomas Day) have similar approaches to their boisterous and bold characters as Miss Forbes and Miss Lee. Day and Carrington take turns barking and bolstering their innocence while trying to get to the root of the problem.
It’s Brother Floyd (D Carter) who is a true scene and show stealer in this production. Innocent like a true child of God with all his own convictions, his hysterical approach to the character’s naiveté is one of the most hilarious in the whole show. He’s all riled up, anxious, antsy, and everyone has encountered this character type in their real life. The saying “every family/church/parish has one” comes immediately to mind. When Carter gets frantic and flustered, especially when trying to purport his innocence, there are some moment of true comic genius that really tickle the funny bone and warm the heart.
Poor Brother Herman (William Walker) is just trying to be the peace-keeping glue that holds them all together in the good Reverend Royster’s (Floyd Gilliam) absence. Walker is thoroughly grounded in his character’s presence on stage and when he tries to calm Brother Floyd down, it’s a task worthy of Samson’s strength and David’s courage. Keeping a lid on his temper, though only just barely, Walker is really involved in keeping the faith amid the chaos that’s unfolding. Gilliam, who plays the good Reverend, showcases Robert Russel’s message the most clearly: humans are flawed, humans do sin and make mistakes, especially when the best of intentions are concerned, but if they stay strong in their faith, the Lord works in mysterious ways and will shed light even in the darkest of times.
There are some brilliant truths, some wonderful moments of heart-warming honesty, and some great comedy, as well as a soulful church-like experience that will really speak to the human heart, the mind, and the spirit in a positive and most enjoyable way.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The Church Mortgage Burning plays through April 24, 2016 at Arena Players— 801 McCulloh Street in the Upton neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 728-6500 or purchase them online.