For 90 minutes, the Unitarian Church’s Gage Hall transformed into an air-conditioned, two-story brick praise house as The Bright Family Singers invited fellowship with commanding Negro spirituals for the Piccolo Spoleto “Oh Happy Day Gospel Music Series.”
The Bright Family Singers’ program of vintage spirituals and contemporary hymns made famous by gospel legends Edward Hawkins, Mahalia Jackson and others, explores how African Americans used faith to help them ensure a difficult life in the early 20th century.
Narrator Guinevere Bright’s cheerful explanation made the show as much a theatrical experience as a choral presentation. Ten singers appeared from the back of the hall dressed in white, as if they were angels. They lined up in three aisles singing “What Oh Mighty God We Serve,” and the music reverberated in the space.
Guinevere mesmerized the audience by recounting the slave origins of spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Whispers among the mostly white patrons of “I didn’t know that” and “Wow” circulated.
Negro spirituals are closely connected to a history of suffering and grief, but psalms promote healing and comfort. Songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “I’m Old Enough to Give My Praises” (the latter written by music director and pianist Carl Bright and sung by group’s youngest member) heightened the emotional response and brought the audience and performers closer together.
At the end of the performance, the choir touched hands with different audience members and sang songs of love and peace, emphasizing community and solidarity. It’s a little like church, just without the pastor.
A final performance is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday, June 9. Tickets are $21 for adults, $16 for seniors, $13 for children under 12. Go to piccolospoleto.com.
Reviewer Andrea Henderson is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.