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An ‘earthly body of Heavenly voices’

Ariel Theatre celebrates black history month, hosts benefit concert

Amber Gillenwater agillenwater@civitasmedia.com

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GALLIPOLIS — Two communities again came together Saturday evening at the historic Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Performing Arts Centre to not only celebrate and uplift one local family, but to also celebrate Black History Month and the rich African American history of the area.


The program, titled “A Stony Road,” featured both traditional and contemporary black Gospel music and, while it was a free evening concert for the community, a love offering was collected for the Bill and LaTanya Smith family, who as a result of a devastating January fire at their Point Pleasant home, lost two of their children.


Local historian Elaine Armstrong provided commentary on the music from the Black History Tradition during the concert and also spoke of the Smith family — who were in attendance Saturday — and their continued fight to help their 14-year old son, who was severely burned in the fire, through his recovery at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati.


“As many of you already know, this is a concert of love for the Bill and LaTanya Smith family. In spite of the recent devastating personal loss of two of beloved children, Tiffany and Braxton, and the continued hospitalization and courageous fight to recover of their 14-year-old son Tré, their faith in God remains as strong as ever — not because of this tragedy, but in spite of this tragedy. What a blessing they are,” Armstrong said. “Please continue to keep Bill, LaTanya, Tré, Tyler and A.J. lifted up in thought and prayer. So, now let us celebrate and share our love of God, Gospel music and our love for this special family.”


The concert, featuring a choir comprised of Ordinary People, the Providence Mass Choir, the Unity in the Community Choir, as well as musicians from throughout the community who wished to participate in the special event, showcased both traditional and contemporary black Gospel music. As Armstrong explained, this “soul music” is a combination of popular music styles that speaks directly to one’s soul.


“The Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tenn., defines it this way: ‘A person’s soul is a person’s essence. That part of our being that can soar to heaven. Gospel is the music of that essence. The church is it’s home,’” she said. “Sacred music celebrates release from worldly bondage. The expression of Gospel music in the black tradition emphasizes, before I can sing, I must feel. Black Gospel is a soul, a testimony, a persuasion and a religious exhortation.”


Armstrong further pointed to the very diverse choir made up of musicians from across the Ohio Valley who came together for their love of black Gospel music and for the Smith family.


“The choir is ethnically diverse, if you haven’t noticed already, and is comprised of members throughout the tri-state region,” Armstrong said. “The ethnic diversity represented here is a wonderful reflection of what music can do. Music has the ability to bring us together on one course regardless of our creed or our color.”


Armstrong further quoted from the famous hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem, as it is know, in her discussion surrounding the importance of music in the ongoing African American tradition.


“The song writers, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, penned it best in their hymn, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ One verse of that famous Negro anthem reads, ‘stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast,’” Armstrong quoted. “It certainly has been a long history of various pebbles and rocks throughout black history, so we are honored and proud to be here this evening.”


Christian Scott, who is the founder of the group Ordinary People and helped direct the choir during Saturday night’s event, thanked the Ariel Theatre and the musicians who traveled from as far away as North Carolina to attend the concert.


He also spoke briefly of his love of Gospel music and encouraged the continued support for the Smith family, who has close ties to both Mason and Gallia counties.


“The beauty of Gospel music is when you’re down, you still have a song. Even when you’re at your highest peak, you still have a song. These songs minister. They come from times when there was slavery and there was segregation and times were just hard. Everybody has gone through a rough spot, a rough time,” Scott said.


“What’s been going on here is two communities have come together because of love and because of Christ and because they want to be together and do the right thing — two communities not only on this side of the river, but down the river and over the river,” he continued. “We want you all [the Smith family] to know tonight that we love you, God loves you. This is what it’s about — unity in the community.”

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