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You Might Say That God Is This Playwright's Co-Author

Theater * In 'Is There a Preacher in the House,' James Ivory Johnson takes inspiration from his life in the church.

November 25, 2000|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When playwright James Ivory Johnson speaks, a casual conversation inevitably turns into a sermon.

"The lesson I've learned in life is that there is a redemption even for those who have fallen," said Johnson, talking about his new gospel musical yet sounding more like the real-life minister he is.

"I've seen good leaders and leaders faced with great temptations who don't do so well. Some fall by the wayside."

Amen.

"We all fall down sometimes, but we get back up again."

Hallelujah.

In Johnson's play, "Is There a Preacher in the House," ministers will leap from the pulpit to the stage of the Crazy Horse Steakhouse in Irvine today.

Johnson, the writer, composer and director of the musical, spoke at a press conference flanked by cast members dressed in their Sunday best: Mother Nelson (Gloria Ray) donned a lipstick-red dress and matching feather hat; Pastor McGullicutty (Maurice Hill) wore a tight black shirt, gold necklace and gold-rimmed glasses; and Evangelist Watts (Cheryl Shigg) appeared in a hot-pink faux fur coat.

The musical is about the church but is critical of church ministries, focusing on seven pastors who commit sins of greed, adultery and pride. They all stray, then each begs forgiveness and finds redemption in the eyes of God.

It's based on the life experiences of Johnson, 39, of Van Nuys, a minister at Redemption Christian Fellowship Center in Inglewood. Johnson, who said he has been led into temptation but has never strayed, penned the story in 1995 and staged it locally a year later.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up in a Christian family and developed musical talents in church, becoming an organist at age 9. He has always been a performer, invited by preachers and pastors of other congregations to play at their churches.

Written in the same idiom as popular gospel musicals such as "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," its 24 inspirational numbers include the signature piece, "Is There a Preacher in the House," and "My Beloved," a love song with lyrics taken from the Book of Solomon. The songs blend gospel and rhythm and blues.

For Johnson and most of the cast, their roles are no stretch from their real lives--most are active in their churches.

Actor Gregory Bowers plays David Nelson, a character based on Johnson. "After the audition, I thought I fit the part well," said Bowers, 30, of Bellflower. "I'm not acting. I'm telling my story." Bowers is a pastor at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in South-Central Los Angeles.

Like his character, Bowers was a musician who accepted his calling into the ministry. The turning point for Nelson comes when his girlfriend gets stabbed after an altercation he has with another pastor.

"At that point, I turn to the audience and address them directly," Bowers said. "That's when everyone becomes more involved with the play."

Bowers uses his preacher skills on stage.

"It feels really natural, like I'm right at home," he said. "Despite temptations and defeats, I'm preaching about how to triumph, how to move forward, how to go on, how to stand, how to be steadfast. It's an exultation."

Olivia Johnson--James Ivory Johnson's wife--plays the role of Sharon, David Nelson's sweetheart.

"Sharon is based on all of James' girlfriends," said Olivia Johnson, 37. Like her character, Johnson met her mate in church, when he was 13 and she was 12. They've been married for 17 years.

For Olivia Johnson, the part doesn't feel like acting. "I personally have no desire to be an actress. But I do what I can to help my husband," she said.

Evangelist Watts is played by real-life minister Shigg of the Holy Bible Way Church in Long Beach. A registered nurse, she also leads a 50-member congregation.

Shigg, 45, of Compton, enjoys playing a flashy preacher who loves outlandish hats.

"Evangelist Watts is full of fire, full of the Holy Ghost and lives her life according to the Scripture. . . . Evangelist Watts is one of the positive preachers in Nelson's life."

At first Shigg was reluctant to perform the gospel musical at the Crazy Horse, a predominantly country-western venue. But "Preacher" held its first performance Oct. 23 at the Crazy Horse and was well-received. Now she's confident about returning for an encore.

"I had mixed feelings because it's a play with a black cast for a mostly white audience, but we had an awesome reception," Shigg said. "We've had a greater reception at Irvine than we've ever had before, even in Los Angeles."

Johnson wasn't surprised. He says his show is designed to reach audiences of different ethnicities with its universal themes. "The musical crosses over all cultural and racial barriers," he said.

*

* "Is There a Preacher in the House," Crazy Horse Steakhouse at Irvine Spectrum Mall, 71 Fortune Drive, Irvine. Today, 2 p.m. $20-$40. (949) 459-6235 or (949) 585-9000.

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