On stage in a church on Detroit’s east side, Myra Morrison thrust her right fist down in front of her body and pulled it up slowly — as if she were yanking out her soul and delivering it to God. She was dressed in a white robe, wearing white paint on her face like a mask.
With a flip of her wrist, she glided her hand up, her furrowed brow melting into a face of bliss.
“I give myself away, so you can use me,” a gospel singer sang on a recording, as the Farmington Hills, Mich., woman acted out the words to the song.
On this recent Saturday night, Morrison was part of a mime troupe performing a concert with others at Chapel Life Church. It was part of a two-day workshop of gospel mime, a growing trend in African-American Christian churches in metro Detroit and across the U.S.
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In Western cultures, pantomime has usually been associated with French performers and street artists. The silent art is often performed in Japanese and Indian spiritual traditions. But in recent years, the black church has taken up the art form, reinterpreting pantomime and combining it with a Christian message.
“You’re bringing the word of God to life, illuminating it,” explained Morrison, 47. “You’re preaching with your body. It’s not about entertainment. It’s about ministry.”
Gospel mime comes out of a history of spiritual expression that stretches back centuries in America and Africa, said Yolanda Smith, a Yale Divinity School lecturer who also performs liturgical dance.
“In African-American churches, movement has always been a part of our history, a part of our heritage,” Smith said. She cited the ring shout, a form of expression that started during slavery and is rooted in Africa.
Mime is one of several ways of expression in black churches that have developed in recent years; they include liturgical dance, stepping routines, cheerleading and drill teams, Smith said. The practices are “a way of engaging young people” amid concerns that they are leaving the church.
Such activities are not strictly about performances but are “an extension of the worship. It’s intended to deepen the congregation’s faith,” Smith said.
In metro Detroit, there are hundreds of gospel mime artists, local performers say.
Mime artists have performed at small houses of worship as well as big Detroit churches such as Second Ebenezer Church on the city’s east side and Greater Grace Temple on the west side. There was even a mime performance at the rally for Trayvon Martin at Hart Plaza in March.
Morrison’s performance one Saturday night this summer was part of the Gathering of the Mimes, a two-hour gospel mime concert that featured several troupes from Detroit; the event drew more than 400 people to Chapel Life.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” said Pastor Dwayne Merritt of Rhema Word Church International in Farmington Hills. “It’s a great form of ministry. This is not a fad.”
Mime performances vary. They include dance numbers, short skits and stories about the life of Christ. Most, but not all, gospel mimes wear white paint on their faces, with black paint to highlight their eyebrows; they might wear white gloves, too. The dress for lead performers is often a flowing robe, while backup and younger performers will wear black pants and black T-shirts.
The makeup “doesn’t conceal,” said Morrison, who founded Anointed-N-Christ Mime Ministry. “It reveals what’s on the inside.”
Mime can be a path to Christ when other routes don’t work, supporters say.
“People learn in different ways,” mime performer Lanese Jefferson, 31, of Detroit explained while taking a break during rehearsal in July at Chapel Life.
“It may be kind of difficult for a person coming to Christ to read the Bible and understand what exactly is being said. If we can paint that picture, if we can create the same story that’s written in the word, it’s a beautiful thing because that’s another way someone can be received.”
Piccolo Robertson of Detroit, who performed at the Trayvon Martin rally, started doing mime after listening to a song by Bishop Paul Morton, a Windsor, Ontario, native whose father had a church in Detroit.
“I would listen to it every night and the Lord spoke to me. He was telling me that he wanted to save souls for the kingdom where the preachers couldn’t get across to the people,” said Robertson, 37. “This is a Jesus thing, not a man thing.”
Robertson and others say there are Biblical roots for mime. Citing a story in the Old Testament, they note that the prophet Ezekiel nonverbally acted out certain stories.
“That’s where mime comes from,” said Robertson. “Ezekiel was the first mime.”