How The Musical Drama ‘Heaven Bound’ Saved Big Bethel AME Church

Big Bethel AME Church
“Heaven Bound” has grown to be an integral part of the church, Atlanta and Auburn Avenue’s culture in its almost nine decades of production. It was a daring socio-religious experiment in the mixing of the races in the days of segregation. CREDIT WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Big Bethel AME Church claims its annual play “Heaven Bound” is the longest-running musical in North America. This year marks the 89th production of the morality play set to spiritual music.

Executive producer Gregory Coleman stopped by to tell “City Lights” more about the event, beginning with the history of the play.

“It’s a work of folk art, and so its origin was at one point in dispute. As a matter of fact, that culminated in a copyright battle in federal court. But the talents of two Sunday school teachers merged. One was an unlettered woman, and one was a college professor. It was the unlettered woman who brought the idea to the financially strapped church, which was struggling to keep its doors open after a fire had devastated the church in 1923. So ‘Heaven Bound’ was really a fundraiser from the start,” Coleman said.

The play has grown to be an integral part of the church, Atlanta and Auburn Avenue’s culture in its almost nine decades of production. It was a daring socio-religious experiment in the mixing of the races in the days of segregation.

The play follows a band of pilgrims who are portraying various circumstances in life: orphanhood, hypocrisy, steadfastness, gambling, drinking, etc. Twenty-one of the pilgrims make it to the pearly gates of heaven — others aren’t so fortunate.

“‘Heaven Bound’ was a pioneering effort in 1930, especially because blacks had never been in dignified stations in theater until then. The play did not have stereotypes in the performance; everyone was dignified, everyday men. In that sense, it was a pioneering effort for black theater,” Coleman said.

The production will be held at Big Bethel AME Church on Auburn Avenue on Friday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m.

This story was originally published with audio on WABE.org.

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