Lift ev'ry voice and sing/Till Earth and Heaven ring/Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Stirring words fit for a poem, eventually adapted as lyrics to the song many view as the black national anthem. This weekend Florida Memorial College celebrates the 100th birthday of the tune with the musical revue Anthem Suite (1900-2000): Lift Ev 'ry Voice and Sing, presented at Overtown's Lyric Theater. The show will feature music, poetry, and dance from the past century, all of it a tribute to Harlem Renaissance-era wordsmith, attorney, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson and his songwriter/performer brother J. Rosamond Johnson.
Revered by people of African descent in the United States and throughout the world, "Lift" has a special meaning at South Florida's only historically black college: The Johnson brothers wrote the song while on the faculty of the school, then located in Jacksonville and known as Florida Baptist College. "We have a poetic imperative to do this show," says John S. Scott, the professor and playwright who coordinated the event. Scott arrived in Miami last fall after making his mark in New York City with productions at the Negro Ensemble Company, the Richard Allen Center for Art and Culture, and the New Federal Theater. Because Anthem Suite highlights Florida Memorial's centurylong relationship with black musical traditions, Scott says, "I'm hoping that people will come to think of Florida Memorial College as a place that does classic musical theater." The song, he believes, will continue to inspire listeners for at least another 100 years, because Johnson's lyrics "invoke the presence and the lives of African Americans in struggle, survival, and thriving."
The joyous voice of Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins makes that struggle sound sweet. Hawkins first captivated the ears of the faithful when she sang "Oh, Happy Day" with the Eddie Hawkins Singers in 1969. Thirty years and many holy hits later, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. In addition to the anthem, Hawkins will belt out gospel classics such as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," made famous by Ethel Waters, and "Come Sunday," written by Dizzy Gillespie for Mahalia Jackson.
Getting happy feet to Hawkins's spirituals will be dancers Walter Rutledge and Friends, featuring long-time Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater principal Marilyn Banks. "We will be doing daredevil stuff," promises Rutledge in answer to the challenge of mounting a full-scale production in the tight confines of the Lyric Theater stage. For Rutledge overcoming obstacles is both the message and the method of Anthem Suite. "I've set movement not just to music but to the text of letters written by Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Birmingham jail," the choreographer explains. "Those letters show that the hope for freedom can flourish even in the most unlikely places."
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
According to director Robert MacBeth, one goal of Anthem Suite is to inspire hope in the face of hardship. Having lived in South Florida for more than a dozen years, the director also expects the show will serve as a local artistic catalyst. "What a college theater like Florida Memorial could do," he says, "is produce more people interested in performing and give the African-American theater community an infusion of talent." MacBeth trusts that a tribute to the Johnson brothers' work can pave the way for a truly American theater, recognizing black experiences while "striving for a world in which the racism which [shaped] those experiences does not exist."
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun/Let us march on till victory is won.