"This is the story of subjugation, terror, pain and revenges unsought . . . but also, a journey of triumphs," says actor Brock Peters during his narration of "This Far By Faith," a significant look at the evolution of the black church on WETA, Channel 26, at 8 o'clock tonight.
The multiplicity of the church's experience, as an institution bound in a struggle for its own existence and integrity, as a refuge for physically and psychologically whipped beings and as an inspirational force for other cultural forms, has rarely been the point of credible inquiry in the popular media.
As a television presentation, "Faith" is a finely crafted hour, fusing the potentially dry chronology with lively dramatic interpretations.
Most importantly, in this information-crowded hour, the strength of the black church emerges. Well understood is its historical evolution, from the African villages to today's soaring Gothic structures and storefront temples, its humanitarian and educational contributions, especially in the building of black colleges after Reconstruction, and its influence in leadership, spawning the eloquence of many contemporary black spokesmen.
With the impact of "Roots" still churning, "Faith" becomes an interesting footnote because the television dramatization of the best-selling book did not explore adequately this cohesive force. Additionally, "Faith" becomes a valuable colloquium by showing the influence of the black church on other cultural experiences and personalities, events and people who have affected all of America's cultural makeup.
Seated in a study, James Baldwin, one of his generation's most influential writers, discusses with Brock Peters, how the church inspired his life and work. Basically the church gave black men freedom, says Baldwin, adding, "The effort to be a writer is an act of love, an act of faith. We, the black people of this country, are extraordinary because we are a product of history handed down . . . through the church." Other interpretations are offered by Jacob Lawrence, the painter, Carmen de Lavallade, the dancer, and Geoffrey Holder, a dizzy alloy of artistic expressions, who says, "Dance is a conversation between man and God."
"Faith," a presentation financed by the American Telegraph and Telephone System, was the idea of Byron Lewis, the president of UniWorld Group, Inc., the country's largest black advertising agency. It was directed by Eric Karson and produced by Peters and Alan Belkin, in conjunction with UniWorld and the Petersen Company.
Other entertainers appearing in "Faith" are actors Roscoe Lee Borwne and Glynn Turman, actress Beah Richards, musicians Donald Byrd, the Louis Cotrell Heritage Hall Jazz Band and the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Edmund Cambridge as the Griot, the African storyteller.
"Faith" is not a definitive answer to every question about the development of the black church -- almost all the important historical personalities are omitted -- but its brushstroke approach does ably trace its significance and cultural power.
130:Picture 1, James Baldwin in "This Far By Faith" Picture 2, Carmen de Favallade in "This Far By Faith"