Apart from waiting in line at the DMV or maybe bumping into one another at a downtown reggae block dance, there aren't too many things that black and white Charlestonians do together. Going to church certainly isn't one.
So the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir is a rarity: blacks and whites doing something collectively spiritual. The choir is the subject of a 30-minute documentary, When We All Get To Heaven, made by local filmmaker Brad Jayne and airing on ETV Thurs. March 30 at 10 p.m.
The choir has intrigued Jayne ever since his mother Sarah joined four years ago.
"If you think about racial history in America, and how people get along, one thing that strikes me is there's never been a process of 'Truth and Reconciliation,'" Jayne, who is white, says, referring to the South African commission set up after Apartheid.
"They [South Africa] gave people who were victims of, and people who were guilty of, really atrocious things a chance to come out and talk about it. America's never done that with slavery, just say 'This is what happened,' being as non-judgmental as you can."
"So by performing these spirituals, these songs written during a hundred, hundred-and-fifty-year period when some really effed-up things were happening, there seems to be some reconciliation between these people [in the choir]."
Using a high-quality widescreen video that has a warmer feel, almost like film, Jayne shot the 80-member choir at rehearsals and performances in April of last year. With no narration or titling, the film relies on this footage and excerpts from interviews to convey the powerful love and emotion the performers feel about each other and the music.
It also captures the personality of the charismatic director, Vivian E. Jones, who one choir member describes as "able to pull each [singer's] soul into the song."
Filmmaker Jayne created the film without a commission or a grant, on his own time, pretty much single-handedly. His daytime employer, commercial production company Osprey Productions in Mt. Pleasant, donated the use of its equipment. As such, he hadn't planned on making a concert film and used only the camera mic to record concert and rehearsals.
"So, ironically, the weakest part of it is the audio, which is pretty sad since it's about a freaking choir."
But sound engineer Mitchell Webb was able to mix in pre-recorded music from the choir's CD. Jayne also uses the bad audio to an advantage at times. When choir director Jones conducts a rehearsal of "Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land," her inimitable stomping and clapping can be heard over the music.
Jayne says the significance of the choir is not just about quality music or a small instance of improved race relations, "but producing something which is magical, with strong spiritual overtones. I'm not a big crier, but half the time I go to their concerts I end up crying."
Not that it's all a Coca-Cola commercial.
"There are some growing pains in putting a choir like this together," Jayne says. (The CSO Gospel Choir was formed in late 2000). "And a 30-minute documentary can't really cover all of that. When you have people coming from different backgrounds, people are going to get on each other's nerves because they're used to doing things differently."
Jayne, 30, is a big guy, affable, with a youthful optimism and energy that belies his slightly graying hair. His parents settled here after his father retired from the military. He went to Wando High School and the University of North Carolina, and returned six years ago with the intent of making a feature film, a goal he continues to pursue.
He recently advanced to the top 50 in HBO's Project Greenlight, and then adapted the screenplay he submitted for that competition into a noirish French-language short film called Le Croisment (The Crossing), with local actors speaking French. This is his first documentary.
"We're trying to build a real community of filmmakers here," he says, "one that reflects a Southeastern voice."
The CSO Gospel Choir will present its fifth annual spring concert, entitled "Wade in the Water," on Sun. April 9, at 5 p.m. at Second Presbyterian Church, 342 Meeting St.