Some 300 women prisoners, a dozen prison staff, and a select group of outside visitors were given a profoundly moving and uplifting presentation of James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones” this past Tuesday evening at CCWF, Chowchilla. The power of music and poetry to bring joy and transformation into people’s lives, the ability of art to lift us above our circumstances was on prominent display in the prison gymnasium.

The event was the culmination of a pair of workshop series at the institution. The first, led by Choir Director Marsha Jones of Fresno, brought 35 women together to work with a professional choir director, an expert in African American gospel music. Ms. Jones, together with accompanist Marcus Jones, her son, worked with the group one night a week for 12 weeks, teaching harmony singing, through both traditional and contemporary gospel music. The night of the performance, the choir was able to fill a large gymnasium without benefit of sound amplification, lifting their voices in praise.

The second workshop series selected 7 women to each perform one of the seven sermons contained in “God’s Trombones.” The work’s writer, James Weldon Johnson, was a prominent African-American writer and civil rights activist of the early 20th Century. “God’s Trombones” is his poetic recreation of seven traditional sermons that were common in Black churches during that time. Director Thomas Witt-Ellis, Professor of Theater Arts at Fresno State University, did an extraordinary job of preparing the actors for their roles.

Between the actors and the choir, the night’s performance was so powerful that the gym took on the atmosphere of a revival meeting. It was clear that, for many in the audience, the event was not merely a fine entertainment; it was a deep, shared spiritual experience. The enthusiasm of the audience supported the actors and the choir to truly give themselves fully to the performance.

The event culminates an Arts in Corrections Pilot Project that presented fine arts classes at five different prison sites in California through the California Lawyers for the Arts, the William James Association Prison Arts Project, and the Actor’s Gang. The intent of the project was to demonstrate the value of fine arts programming in the prison environment, and to generate support for expanding the program. Research collected over the course of the project showed that art program participants were significantly more likely to explore other educational opportunities, and to have better relationships with prison staff and other inmates when compared to their peers.

– Jack Bowers, William James Association Board Chair