"Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God" A REAL TKO at Playhouse on the Square

"Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God" at Playhouse on the Square was a breathtaking celebration of Black culture and storytelling. Directed by Claire D. Kolheim, with a powerhouse cast and creative team, this production captivated the audience with its gospel-inspired music, powerful performances, and innovative design.


"Your Arms Are Too Short To Box with God" was an absolute TKO directed by Claire D. Kolheim at Playhouse on the Square. From the moment the show started, it was clear that we were in for a powerful, joyous celebration of Black culture and storytelling.

In This AUDicle

  • A Gospel Celebration
  • Directorial Brilliance
  • Musical Brilliance
  • Choreographic Mastery
  • Stunning Design
  • Godly Performances
  • Cultural Impact

A Gospel Celebration

From the opening ballad to the closing number, "Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God" was a spiritual journey that had the audience clapping, crying, and shouting aloud on our feet like we were in a country backwoods church in Summerville, TN. I kept having to ask myself, "am I at Playhouse?" We were welcomed by the beautiful spirits of associate resident company members, Facia Lee and Drew Sinnard. This was a pleasant experience.

The beatitudes set a reflective tone before bursting into an all-out gospel celebration led by Curtis Jackson as the Preacher. I know Curtis to be full of energy on stage; however, his unexpected, churchy voice and magnetic stage presence captivated the audience, making it feel like a true revival. It retired your inhibitions. I rarely sat down the entire performance and as sure as Cecelia Wingate (who was in my section) is a visionary, I was not ashamed. We were immediately immersed in a world that seemed so ancient, but also right in the backyards of our childhoods and some of our standing beliefs.

Curtis Jackson as Preacher in Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God

I admit that I did not know what to expect from this production. However, I knew this Jesus story would be excellent because it was produced by a creative trinity: Claire D. Kolheim, Emma Crystal, and Tammy Holt, supported by the incomparable Noelia Warnette-Jones as Assistant Director! Talk about powerful Black women! The production was dripping in melanin brilliance, eye for detail, and unique flavor.

The decision to make this historically Black 80’s show a colorblind casting concerned me. Playhouse has been practicing this concept with success mostly here and there for a few years now. I praise their progression as a production house and I appreciate that they are listening to critiques and honoring our point of view. At the time though, the decision was not giving me Patti Labelle or a new attitude. I feared this production that relied on the foot tap on the one and three and the claps on two and four would suffer. It felt like a regressive slight to an opportunity to showcase and not share the spotlight. I trust Claire so I did not panic. I do not inherently think it's wrong every time colorblind casting is utilized, but I question why it's necessary when it's meant to address how much WE are left out of narratives, whether fact or fiction. Particularly this narrative eerily brings all races, backgrounds, and ethnicities together in a present praise and a not-so-distant persecution. Somehow, this creative team magnificently captured both the praise and the contradictions. The choir was real and alive!

Directorial Brilliance

Director Claire D. Kolheim created a masterpiece that will be remembered for years to come. We were not alone in our celebration. At any given moment (and I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life), you could see Claire running, shouting and rejoicing in the aisles with no remorse or care. During intermission, I caught her after trying to get some kind of couth about myself and said, “Claire! Why would y’all do this in these white folks' theatre like that.” And she simply responded, “We have to.” There was so much power in her confidence about what had been accomplished. It was literally disorienting in the most extraordinary way.

Claire has created a masterpiece yet again, and this is the third time I have witnessed her do it. As a director, she understands what the audience needs to experience, not just what they want. Many directors play to audiences because they want butts in seats, which tears away at the fabric of authentic storytelling. Claire doesn't care about that. She always takes a daring, well-executed approach to storytelling, making her productions unforgettable. You can tell how much confidence and power she instilled into her entire cast and crew to pull off this massive success.

Musical Genius

Musical Director, Tammy Holt resurrected this classic piece and has created something revolutionary that she should be goddamn proud of. Once I learned that Tammy only received a piano score for this project and she orchestrated everything else, my mind was blown away. Tammy's orchestration of the music was the blood flowing through the veins of each element of the production. I honestly do not know how she did it, but who am I kidding, we all know the legend that is Tammy Holt. This iconic work needs to be nationally recognized. The show was rich with historic gospel allusions, and her compositions like "We Are the Priest" and "Look How They Did My Lord" were particularly moving. We heard familiar licks reminiscent of Walter Hawkins, harmonies reflective of James Cleveland, and movements drenched in brilliance in the likes of Richard Smallwood. Tammy Holt is brilliant. We will get into that more later. The blend of live instruments and powerful vocals created an immersive, soul-stirring experience.

My two favorite music pieces composed by Tammy were “We Are the Priest” and “Look How They Did My Lord.” I know there are more there. Each number topped the last so your ears never got bored. Tammy done stuffed communion into our ears and what a feast we had this last supper.

Joshua Crawford is a master sound technician and everyone should be following his lead. Gospel productions are a lot of sound and this production was not short of HUGE voices. Making them all blend and stand out when it was appropriate so no easy feat; but I am not surprised because Josh always slays us in this way. It felt like listening to a live recording of the Clark Sisters or Kirk Franklin, or dare I say, Donald Lawrence. 

Choreographic Mastery

The movement in this piece was its heartbeat. Emma Crystal's choreography captured the soul and energy of the story so well that even without dialogue or music, you could still feel the narrative’s pulse. The work done with Karl Robinson as Dancing Jesus, Lydia Jones as Dancing Mary, Zurick Thomas as Judas, and Lexi Lang was particularly striking. These impeccable dancers used their bodies to tell the story, giving me all the sensations I needed to see and feel my own obstacles to work through.

Karl Robinson as Dancing Jesus, Zurick M. Thomas as Judas, Lydia Jones as Dancing Mary in Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God

That’s an important part of theatre that often gets lost—it's supposed to not only entertain and tell stories but also to save lives. You never know when someone watching is on edge, and this cast delivered the medicine we all needed to survive another day.

Karl Robinson has shown immense growth and now we are witnessing this magnificent performer begin to unleash his full potential. It wasn’t just his execution of the choreography; it was how he used his entire being to effortlessly showcase pain, anguish, empathy, victory, vulnerability, and even defeat. This was my favorite role to see Karl portray. He maintained a meekness that gripped you until the very end when we see him carry and hang on the cross. The final moments held us captive as he gave his last breath. Karl's performance was deeply moving.

We felt this deeply because of the story Lydia Jones, Dancing Mary, told with her body. In a sea of riveting vocal performances, she was not lost. I looked to her for translation. Dancers provide a somatic release. Lydia showcased a deep understanding of the human spirit of longing and protection. Her face was so engaged in weariness that I prayed for her release. She danced as if something was holding her loved one hostage and she was unwilling to let go.

Noelia Warnette-Jones supplemented the choreography in the second act, adding layers of depth and dimension. It all stayed true to the genre. The collaboration between Emma and Noelia was seamless, creating a cohesive and powerful visual narrative that was both fresh and classic.

Stunning Design

The set, costumes, and lights were narrators and guides for this production. Tim McMath's scenic design was gorgeous, providing a versatile backdrop that seamlessly transitioned between scenes. Terry Eikleberry's lighting design was emotionally evocative, while Josh Crawford's sound design ensured that every voice and instrument blended perfectly.

Costume designer J. Faye Manselle deserves special praise for showcasing Black bodies and other cast members in a way that celebrated culture without resorting to clichés. The costumes were colorful, flowing, and deeply connected to the story's themes.

You all did a phenomenal job of making something so minimal, breathtaking and appropriate. I felt like I was watching one of those PBS specials from back in the day that showcased Sounds of Blackness and other hip gospel songs of the 80s and 90s era. 

Godly Performances

I could go on and on about the dynamic performances in this production and that's why this section is going to be long as the highway to heaven.

We are going to start with Brandon R. Dickerson. Every once in a while, you find an anchor voice, the voice that creates the musical sphere for the production to live in and around. This production clearly called for a particular sound, and Brandon’s voice added a rock-soul edge that was reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s background vocals and Tina Turner's shouty edge. It’s hard to capture in words, but his voice gave the music an extra dimension that elevated the entire production.

Brandon R.Dickerson in Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God

Brandon shined in this role because of his commitment to telling a story he clearly loved. His performance was deeply rooted in understanding and passion for the narrative. Each character he portrayed was nailed, especially his portrayal of the priest.

In the call and response song, he truly took the audience in, showcasing his ability to connect and engage. Brandon’s dedication to staying true and authentic to how these gospel songs are lamented was evident and greatly appreciated. His voice created a powerful and moving experience, making him a standout performer in this remarkable production.

Curtis Jackson was a revelation, his voice and stage presence creating an immediate connection with the audience. His ability to switch between sermon and song with such authenticity was a highlight. I could not tell if he was improving or speaking directly to us from his lived experiences. Curtis was supported by a performer I have never witnessed before, but I was so glad that I did, that performer is Donald Thomas. Donald's voice is sickening in the best way. It is so strong and powerful! It was always right on time to transcend us into the next moment. I bout lost it when Curtis and Donald were vocally going back and forth. It was giving me deacons during devotion vibes, but some of y'all don't know nothing about that, so moving on.

Another voice that left an indelible mark on this production was Gabrielle Willingham as Pilate’s wife. If Curtis was the pastor, Gabrielle was definitely our First Lady. SHEESH!!! Where did you all find this woman? Have you ever come across a talent with a full voice that can hold and rock you early in the morning and late in the midnight hour? Gabrielle’s very first song took me back to the days of gospel greats.

Her voice is one to be reckoned with, bringing a richness and depth that resonated throughout the theater. Each time she took the stage, I found myself getting more and more excited, eagerly anticipating her next note. Gabrielle’s presence and vocal prowess added an extraordinary layer to the production, making her a standout performer who truly brought the spirit of gospel to life.

Speaking of life, anytime Haley Wilson opened her mouth to flat foot sang, I was utterly captivated and revived. This show really needed EMT's on staff for all the baptist fits that ensued. I don’t know who Haley has been praying and studying with lately, but as many masterful shows as I have seen Haley in, this production has me 100% convinced, although I already was, that Haley Wilson should be a household name.

She is not a mere performer. Her voice is very special and unique, bringing such a dynamic spirit to this piece. Paired with the incredible dancing Mary, Lydia Jones, who captured every inflection and feeling, Haley brought a comforting and motherly presence that enveloped the entire show. Each time she opened her mouth, we were sent into a frenzy and SHE KNOWS what she is doing. She knows how to harness her vocal power. I was sitting there thinking, "how is your voice still this strong after an entire run." Seriously, Haley is singing like her life depends on it. Her performances were consistently breathtaking, reinforcing her place as a standout talent in this production. Haley, I am really blown away.

Dear Arthelle Williams Moore, I have been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of truly dynamic performers, but I kid you not when I say I have never ever witnessed anything like you on stage. It’s hard to capture what I experienced from your mere presence into words.

Understand, that I was only raised Christian. I do not practice any religions anymore, but "Look How They Did My Lord" made me weep like I was at the altar accepting Christ all over again. But what is transformative about your gift is that it made me go inside. Your voice gave me comfort and courage to explore a place in my soul I rarely venture to anymore, and I wept like Jesus.

And for this moment of silence, I want everyone to take notice of Mac White; she is a rising ingénue with a powerful gift. She is transformative and takes command of spaces both on stage and off. She is revolutionary and you can feel it radiating off of her. I hope she is not afraid of this power. I can see her being a director or coach of some sort. The girl is on fire.

Arthelle Williams Moore and Haley Wilson in Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God

Still with me? We have a few more for this hallelujah fest.

I want to pivot, while still talking about performances, to point of the spirit of this production.

I want to highlight the undying commitment of Micah Roker. I have witnessed you blossom and show up again and again. I was so happy to see you properly showcased in this piece. I couldn’t take my eyes off of you each time you stepped on stage. The stakes were high. I loved the trio with Ashley Sade, and Bizzy Walker for "Come on Down," especially the choreo here. The mocking juxtaposed with the grief of the ladies shortly after was brilliant.

No gospel performance is quite finished without a sudden powerhouse solo from an unexpected, mostly silent cast member, and that's what we got from McKenzie Brewer.

The manipulation, grief, regret, and energy Zurick M. Thomas drove as Judas into his performance held us on the edge of our seats until his very last suicidal moment. That piece was so incredible to me, and the energy he emitted through it made one want to run on stage and say, "you can go another way." Some of the audience cheered in the most uncanny way, but I couldn't hate "the villain." Zurick played this role with dignity and accepted his fate with pride.

Christian Nieve's performance was nothing short of masterful. Christian always uses his entire instrument to storytell and he never fails to take me with him. I could feel it all just as I did when he was in Clyde's, also directed by Claire. Welcome back Christian! As Peter, he held his throughline tightly, delivering a gripping and powerful tale. Christian is a true artist to watch, not to mention this man can SING! The notes were high and hitting, making his portrayal unforgettable.

Lastly, I want to shoutout a new performer that I was so proud to see on stage again. This last summer I met Justin Henderson and his mom during Headshot Fest. He told me how he had been studying theatre and of all the things he's tried, theatre felt like home. It was beautiful to see that his family was supporting him with this. Well, I got to see this gentle giant unleash. I don't think anyone had as much energy on stage as Justin. He was oozing with excitement to be on stage. I could tell he was having a ball, especially towards the end when the gospel extravaganza was happening. I could tell my boy was getting his life and I lived for it. I'm so proud of you and you should keep going! The stage is ready for you.

Cultural Impact

"Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God" was not just a performance; it was a cultural event that brought Black storytelling to the forefront in a way that felt both fresh and classic. The representation of Black joy, struggle, and triumph on stage was a powerful reminder of the importance of diverse narratives in theatre.


"Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God" is a must-see production that deserves to be an annual event at Playhouse on the Square. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of Black storytelling in theatre, and a testament to the talent and dedication of everyone involved. Thank you to the cast, crew, and creative team for an unforgettable experience.

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