THE REV. WILLIAM Herbert Brewster is much beloved in the gospel world for his 200 compositions, which include such staples as "Move on Up a Little Higher," "Surely," "How Far Am I From Canaan," "How I Got Over" and "Lord I Tried." Brewster, 81 and pastor at East Trigg Baptist Church in Memphis for more than 50 years, is a true pioneer of black American sacred music; he will be honored with a three-day restrospective and colloquium at the Smithsonian starting tonight. Sunday afternoon's program will focus on one of his unique achievements, gospel drama, an updating and popularization of the classic passion play.
"The gospel drama is like a gospel sermon," Brewster says in his rich bass-baritone cadence. "It is an effort to spread the good news and glad tidings of salvation through Jesus Christ through people who act out certain stories written directly from the Bible. It's a theological movement in the same vein as preaching and the singing of the Gospel. I found in my early ministry that so much of knowledge comes through the eyes of people: You can show them what you can't tell them."
Brewster's dramas melded black culture and oral expressions over very modern original music: Historian Tony Heilbut noted that "his lyrics have always been the most ambitious in gospel, blending a conscious literary sensibility with the most vivid, immediate folk imagery." "In the preaching of the Gospel, faith comes by hearing," Brewster explains. "Hearing is the direct aid to the message of the Gospel. The dramatization of the Gospel is the same method that Christ used in relating a parable or telling a story of something that had passed. Our effort is to put the Gospel squarely before the people.
"It was particularly appealing to youngsters and to the older people -- many of them in my early ministry could not read and write and they did not have ministers who were prepared to give the basics of the Gospel as the ministers are today. And so it caught fire and people wanted it and I continued to do it and it drew tremendous crowds and there were people converted to Christianity, sometimes during the performance.
"We also had phrases in it that appealed to the moral thinking of people. A lot of young people had gone astray, but as they looked upon the performance, they saw what they would not take time to read. You know, the Bible isn't exactly a funny storybook and a lot of people don't take the time to read or research. Through this method, we've been able to stir up a lot of interest in the Bible as the word of God, we have been able to give to the people what the Bible said directly. This is the purpose of a gospel drama."
Brewster, who taught Aretha Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and whose Memphis services were regularly attended by a young Elvis Presley, was also something of a political activist, his motto being, "out of the Amen corner onto the Street corner." He proudly points out that his gospel dramas started in the early '40s, "before this integration period," as he calls it. "Way back in the old days, there were many, many laws and facets of government that were cruel and inhuman to black people. There were no freedom fighters and freedom rioters as were later developed, so we took the Bible stories and dramatized them from a truthful standpoint, took the history of the nations and the races, and out of that proved to the people that racial inferiority was a balloon that could be punctured by truth itself, and that all men are created equal.
"We sought to prove also that black people had made their contributions and that the old empires were hermetic in their origin, the building of great cities and establishment of great governments and the great religions were started by people of color. This was the process of our crusades in those days, when we didn't have the ear of the media. We demonstrated how important it is to know the background of people, not what they are always today, but what they have been, so that they can recapture those great powers of civilization with the aid of present-day improvement that they didn't have back in those days. That was the real purpose of my beginning the gospel dramas; the word Gospel, of course, means God's story and we wanted to get that story over, and to get it over, we had to go to the platform with it."
Brewster's first gospel drama, "From Auction Block to Glory," was performed in 1941 at the National Baptist Convention and has been described as a watershed in black American religious culture. Since then, the dramas have been performed in churches and auditoriums, at conventions; they also have inspired dramatic clubs in hundreds of churches.
"Sowing In Tears, Reaping In Joy," which will performed Sunday afternoon at Baird Auditorium, is a double-feature written for matinee and evening programs; each portion is a complete story, described sermon-style by Brewster: " 'They that sow to the wind, reap the whirlwind'--of course that is the nations, ancient and modern, that forget God, that defy righteousness in their national standards. They disappeared for the most part and reaped as they had sown--seeds of sorrow, deprivation, depression and oppression. Many of those thrones were toppled, their scepters were broken, their crowns were crushed and now they are part of incinerated dust. That's the purpose of the first section--it's insane to reap that kind of a harvest!
" 'Reaping in Joy' is built upon the suffering and deprivation of black people and other people in the world, nations and individuals. They had days of sorrow, troubles and trials heaped upon them, many of them for no other reason than that they were black. But if anything is to be obtained worthwhile, it is our philosophy that you're going to have to suffer for it. You can't expect it on a silver platter, you can't expect to have a claim without being willing to pay the price, whatever it takes. Keep it in the lines of righteousness and we believe that in the end it will bring forth an abundant harvest in which all people can rejoice, especially people of good will."
The weekend is part of the Smithsonian's Program in Black American Culture.