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Director Calvin Manson fills the stage with music and dance, but the show's star is James Weldon Johnson.

If he never wrote a word, Johnson (1871-1938) would have lived a life of distinguished service. He taught at NYU and Fisk University, was a diplomat (U.S. consul at Venezuela and Nicaragua), and an activist (first secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

But he also wrote. Oh, did he ever!

God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) recreates the "folk sermon" tradition of African-American churches. Seven preachers tell familiar stories from the bible: among them the Creation, Noah and the Flood (and "the fire next time"), Moses in Egypt, and the Crucifixion. But Johnson's vibrant, commanding voice makes the familiar sound brand new.

Some examples:

When God separated day from night, the night was "blacker than 100 midnights down in the darkest swamp."

"Young man," a preacher says, "your arms are too short to box with God."

And, with depth and elegant simplicity, "It causes me to tremble when I think how Jesus died."

The Ira Aldridge Repertory Players have found a home at the Educational Cultural Complex. The opening night performance of Trombones was a triple celebration: of Johnson's writing, the new link with ECC, and the power of the spirit.

This must be IARP's most ambitious production: a full choir (from the San Diego County Gospel of America); Redeemed, a male quintet; two dance troupes (from Bayview Baptist Church and CAC Dance Theatre; and a six-piece band.

Some of the opening night performances were uneven. And persistent problems with miking, especially in Act one, often made the lead singers hard to hear and Johnson's extraordinary words hard to follow (as a whole, the group tended to play to the front seats instead of the back row).

These troubles stuck out all the more because when it's on, and it often is, the show shivers the timbers of the ECC.

The choreography's terrific. C. Anthony Cole's "Christ the Redeemer" and Steve Beard's for "How I Got Over" brim with expressive grace.

Trombones has two parts. The first moves from the creation of the world to the birth of salvation. The second, more contemporary, shows the wages of sin - and the way out.

Two performances stand out, and each rides the two trains, of sin and salvation. Marion George begins the evening as the high voltage Prayer Lady so eager to spread the word she may explode. In part two, when the piece enters a den of brightly colored iniquity, George becomes Babylon Woman and sings a seductive "Hey Mister Give Me a Drink."

Hassan El-Amin makes a similar about face. He could take his amazing Preacher #2 - who roars with righteousness - into any local church and make converts. In the second act, he couldn't be more opposite: the Mayor of Babylon in peach-colored suit, shoes, and socks. This is one bluesy dude, dripping with evil.


Educational Cultural Complex 4343 Ocean View Boulevard, Barrio Logan, playing through March 11.

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