Jesus Christ Superstar made its debut on the stage back in 1971; five years later, Vinnette Carroll (the first black woman to direct on Broadway) told the same Biblical story—without King Herod or Mary Magdalene, and via gospel music rather than rock. Superstar pops up every now and then on a local stage, but Carroll’s version, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, is a real rarity, unseen here until now, in its production by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
Quite a production it is—streamlined at only an hour or so, but jam-packed with action and emotions as it retells the Gospel of Matthew and the brief life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. On a stage that resembles the city and temple of Jerusalem (designed by Michael Newton-Brown) and wearing colorful long garments and sandals (costumes by Adrienne Pitts), a cast of 16 re-enacts Jesus’ journey to the cross. And while the show (reconstructed from the original production by director Harry Bryce and musical director Jay Dodge II, using Carroll’s book and music and lyrics by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant) is, overall, rousing and joyful, it also spares little in depicting the barbarity of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
As Jesus, Charles Lattimore Jr. (clad in pure white) gets things rolling with “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time,” as his worshipful fans join him. But it’s not long before the resentful elders and priests of Jerusalem turn on him, aided by the traitorous Judas. As Judas, Donald Frison, who also created the perfectly fitting choreography that helps tell the story, has his own moment of dance expression before a hanging noose. Chakara Rosa as Mary also expresses much of her pain about her son with gestures and dance moves without saying a word.
The structure of the musical allows many of the ensemble members to shine at different moments. Newcomer Cequita Monique is on fire on “See How They Done My Lord” and “Something’s Wrong in Jerusalem.” Teresa Stanley, a WBTT founding member, delivers with her usual powerhouse soul on “I Love You So Much Jesus” near the show’s end. Lattimore is charismatic on “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” and Syreeta Banks leads the company on the title tune with hand clapping fervor.
Ultimately, Lattimore as Jesus tells us, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, or follow some other religion, as long as you have faith in something. Director Bryce, Dodge and his excellent band, and the cast clearly do, and the result is bound to raise spirits in those who see and hear it.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God continues through April 5 at WBTT; for tickets, call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.