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THE CHURCH LADIES <br> ROBESON'S GOSPEL MUSICAL IS A RAUCOUS, ROOF-RAISIN' PRAISE-GOD GOOD TIME

I've been told often over the years that raising one's voice in song at church is like praying twice.

If this is true, then the praise reaching God's ears is in double digits in the Paul Robeson Theatre's latest production, Nannie Helen Burrough's gospel-singin', hand-clappin' musical "On Their Way to the Slabtown District Convention."

The premise is this: Annually, a local women's "missionary society" in some unnamed part of the South holds its convention -- this year at Slabtown, the hamlet of Hawk's Nest next on the list -- where reports are given on how members are progressing doing the Lord's work. Most years, business is ordinary, rubber-stamp stuff.

But this latest meeting starts out contentious and stays that way right up to the final gavel. Only a fire-and-brimstone sermon by a guest preacher sends everyone home renewed and promising to turn the other cheek.

The night starts with the delegates arriving in starched dresses and matching hats, with purses at the ready. Immediately after a call to order, the trouble starts. Florida Knobb's (Kimberly Campbell) "Welcome Speech" is found insulting by a certain faction, and when the president offers faint praise for the past year's projects and scolds the delegates for not walking the walk, all hell breaks loose.

A tiny dynamo named Flannelette Jonesbury (director June Saunders Duell doing double duty) raises a ruckus, makes motions and leads her followers out of the hall a couple of times until cooler heads prevail.

Luckily, every time a riot seems imminent, someone calls for a song.

The Robeson sways with the familiar "There's a Meetin' Here Tonight" and "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" and gospel staples such as "I Want to Be Ready," "I Wish Somebody Would Catch Fire (And Burn with the Holy Ghost)" and an upbeat version of a tune normally reserved for funerals, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow"; here it is a gentle and very pretty rocker led by the shy and clear-toned Courtney Brown.

Four more songs complete the gospel score, including a raucous closer that once again proves the Robeson is solidly constructed. Doris Boyd is a nightlong marvel on the piano.

The music is terrific but so, too, are the "Slabtown Convention's" "Committee Reports," each mini-classic character role clinics like Watchanna Scrouge's (Jacqueline Jordan) treasurer's report: "A treasurer can't report what she don't get." Respectfully submitted. Or Susie Wright's (the marvelous Betty Stone, whose walk to the rostrum should be time-capsuled) lament on how the group's "Helping Africa" campaign failed miserably.

Three men of the cloth have been invited to the meeting out of courtesy. The Rev. Big John (Leon Copeland Jr.) is given a vague theme for his closing homily but sends the crowd into a frenzy with a mix of questionable biblical references, skyward appeals, Flip Wilson choreography and used-car salesman rhetoric.

When he announces that he "has his ticket and he's goin' home," the convention takes its cue and does the same. No new officers are elected. "We'll do it next year," someone yells. "They don't do nothin' anyway." A resounding "Amen!" follows.

It's great fun, if a little repetitious, this "On Their Way to the Slabtown District Convention." Lula L. Gayles-Herring, Cynthia Maxwell and Diane Gayles Livingston are terrific, as is the ensemble. Saunders-Duell's direction is laudable; the logistics of situating a 22-member cast on the Robeson stage is challenging. The set by Paulette Harris does seem more spacious than usual; nice work.

REVIEW *** 1/2
WHAT: "On Their Way to the Slabtown District Convention," gospel musical by Nannie Helen Burroughs
WHEN: Through May 26
WHERE: Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave.
TICKETS: $18.50; $14.50 students; $8.50 under age 12
INFO: 884-2013

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