It was a big theater, filled with choirs aiming hundreds of don't-test-me voices at you all at once. But a member of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church choir still felt the need to lay down the gospel law Saturday night.
"We are not just here for you to sit down and be entertained -- somebody just shout 'YEEEaaaagh,' " he shrieked, part Howard Dean, part Lil' Jon.
Hundreds in the Lincoln Theatre audience obeyed as Bethel choir director Tony Small, in a starched white button-down shirt, stood before the sea of singers wearing all black, his arms soaring with their voices.
The 50-member choir sang the jazzy "I've Got Something to Sing About" and a jeans-clad rapper jumped onstage. "I got much love for the Old Dude," he rapped as four liturgical dancers roamed the theater aisles, pumping their arms heavenward.
In the audience: Whoops! What's that? A toe -- your toe -- tapping along with the drums? All around, hands and bodies seemed to levitate as the voices sailed through the atmosphere.
"Now that's gospel," said Lorraine Jones, a 57-year-old legal assistant, aptly summing up the sentiment at the first D.C. Gospel Fest.
It was also gospel when the Choir Boyz, a streetwise Baltimore quintet minus one member, doo-wopped for Jesus over bass-heavy tracks. And it was also gospel when soul crooner Regina Belle riffed a Sunday-worthy rendition of her hit "If I Could," leaving no surface of the stage unstomped by her stilettos.
And it was most certainly gospel when BL&S Singers founder Barbara Best, who was recognized with the festival's Gospel Legacy Award after more than a half-century in the business, came out in a white sequined gown, let go of her walker and unleashed a sound that brought down the house.
That was part of the point of the event: To show how diverse gospel has become, where its roots are, and how much it continues to thrive in this area. The event's matinee and evening performances by 17 mostly local choirs and groups -- along with the headliner, tenor Daryl Coley -- raised scholarship money for the Flow Foundation. The local foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Internet party promoters Flow Entertainment, tried to make the umbrella as wide as possible to connect local black professionals who constitute Flow's typical clientele with local black churches.
"I see a greater divide than there should be between urban professionals and local churches," says Keir Gumbs, 29, chair of the festival. "The black church was the first face of the African American community. The church has been a springboard for everything."
To many in the faith community, it was a welcome overture. "Churches are not the easiest mediums to work with," says Howard Cook, head of Arlington's 37-member Celestial Echoes of Lomax AME Zion Church, which performed in the matinee show. "To go out and try to reach out to all ears in the Washington metropolitan area is a wonderful thing."
"It is just impressive to see their tenacity to see this happen," added Summer Scott, one-third of the Power Gospel Trio, from Fort Washington, which performed in the evening show. "And being on the program with big names never hurts."
Coley, a pastor and award-winning tenor, was among the biggest names, and when he strolled out into the audience for the evening performance wearing a royal blue blazer and black slacks, the pepper in his hair giving way to salt, the crowd gave him a standing ovation just for being there.
He stepped onstage and sang "Oh, Sweet Wonder" a cappella, asking and answering his own questions:
He's a wonder in my soul.
What you gonna do about it, Coley?
Bless His name.
Coley also did a little preaching. "I know church is tomorrow, but you in service tonight," he told the audience. He recalled the time when doctors told him they would have to amputate his leg because of diabetes. He told the doctor to get out of his hospital room. On this night, he then lifted his hands with a flourish and said, "Let me tell you something" as he stomped three times on the leg.
The audience howled.
Still, the divide between young and old was in effect. Many of the older members of the audience came out in their church finest -- silk, suits, matching pumps -- while the younger members came out in jeans, head wraps and newsboy hats. The theater was half-full for the matinee but nearly packed in the evening.
Some young professionals applauded the effort to bring them all together. "Instead of being a regular at happy hours, I'd be happy to come in and do this," said Kyla Murphy, a 32-year-old procurement specialist.
Reginald Walden Jr., a 36-year-old truck driver, agreed. "We have very good spiritual leaders here in D.C., and I think it's about time. I'm sure if they continue this, it will get even better."