Heaven Bound, an African American folk drama that portrays the struggles and pitfalls of a group of pilgrims striving to reach the gates of heaven, was first performed on February 17, 1930, at the Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta. It was hailed soon after as "the first great American folk drama" by the Theatre Guild and has been performed annually ever since.
Heaven Bound pioneered black theater in the South, building its reputation on the power of black spirituals and the lure of black folk mimicry. Because blacks were shut out of mainstream traditional theater, the play maintained its home base at Big Bethel.
With critical acclaim and popular demand at a peak during the 1930s, the play toured cities and towns throughout Georgia and the Southeast. By 1939 it had crystallized in form and become a southern institution. The Heaven Bound choir, cloaked with fame during the depression years, sang for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his Little White House in Warm Springs. The choir also rendered foot-stamping spirituals at the 1939 world premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. The prestige and wide appeal of Heaven Bound gave it a unique role as a social force and agent of change in the Atlanta community. The play's interaction between cast and audience furthered the city's agenda for interracial dialogue and goodwill. The black and white people who annually packed Big Bethel's 1,500-seat sanctuary to see the drama seated themselves in an integrated fashion even while racial segregation was still the law.
Although Big Bethel's financial emergency gave rise to Heaven Bound, the play had deep cultural roots in the black experience. Its real inspiration was the historical, heaven-focused pilgrimage of African Americans from slavery into the twentieth century.
The feverish pace of hundreds of performances during the 1930s slowed considerably in the early 1940s. Because the cast had sustained injuries from stage sets built hastily in unfamiliar places, Big Bethel restricted the cast to two performances a year. Typically these were staged in the church's large sanctuary. The popularity of Heaven Bound continued, however, as evidenced by a 1953 pictorial essay in Life magazine. By 1971 the play had seen almost eight hundred performances and more than one million ticket sales since its debut. Five years later the New York Times cited it as "one of Atlanta's most enduring traditions." By the turn of the century Heaven Bound had become one of the longest continuously running theater productions in the nation.
Lewis V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).
Gregory D. Coleman, We're Heaven Bound! Portrait of a Black Sacred Drama (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994).
Winona L. Fletcher, "Witnesses a 'Miracle': Sixty Years of Heaven Bound at Big Bethel in Atlanta," Black American Literature Forum 25 (spring 1991): 83-92.
Hugh T. Keenan, " Heaven Bound at the Crossroads: A Sketch of a Religious Pageant," Journal of American Culture 11 (fall 1988): 39-45.
Redding S. Suggs Jr., " Heaven Bound," Southern Folklore Quarterly 27 (December 1963): 249-66.
Gregory D. Coleman, Big Bethel AME Church, Atlanta
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