The Pittsburgh Foundation

Bonita Lee Penn

Bonita Lee Penn. Image credit: Kahmeela Adams.
Bonita Lee Penn. Image credit: Kahmeela Adams.

2023 grant amount: $30,000 over two years

This grant supports the development of a play highlighting African American Pentecostal practices and their connection to their West African origins. In 2023 there were more than ten million Pentecostals in the United States. Of that, five million are members of the Church of God in Christ, and 84% are Black. There are approximately 45 COGI in the western Pennsylvania area, and ten of those are under the Jurisdiction of Bishop Melvin Clark, The Church in the Round, Aliquippa, which inspired this play "Gospel in the Wake."

The pattern of the Black worshippers changed as young Blacks were less engaged in the church. Even so, there is a consensus among Black Americans that the Black church has played a valuable role in the struggle for racial equality in society.

The play opens with an epigraph from Theologian Estrelda Alexander, “Because the early leaders of Pentecostalism were African American, they had been grounded in spirituality. A lot of times, because you do not understand your past, you don’t even know what it is that influences you.”

This play is witness to the roots of COGI, and its goal is to educate and entertain those who believe, those who have disengaged, those looking to understand the truth and questioning stereotypical beliefs. The audience is not limited to the COGI community but also attracts those who appreciate Black spiritual music, dance and plays.

The play’s goal is not to persuade or correct but to be an aesthetic of possibilities. Also to bridge the gap of miseducation to the history of African spiritual practices and their origins in the wake of enslavement. The focus of the play will support the cultural shift in how Blacks think of the exploration of African spiritual practices and inspire them in the creation of new art.