A woman shimmies a feathery green scarf behind both shoulders, jumping into a line of people forming down an aisle at the Carolina Theatre. She dances as the line wraps in front of the stage, where a trumpet player steps down the stairs and joins in. He blares notes from “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they snake through the rows of red seats.
The Gate City Ramblers leads this second line prior to the second annual This CommUnity Sings. The Sunday offers a concert of timeless classics, turning the audience of Greensboro community members into a local choir. The set consists of five songs, led by dancers, professional vocalists and a conductor, even if the singers themselves have no training.
As the UNCG Spartones harmonize to kick things off, Jessica Mashburn waits a few feet offstage. She serves as co-chair for the board of volunteers that organized the event, her face beaming as performers warm up to lead the entire auditorium.
“Really all we’re asking,” Mashburn says, “is for people to bring their voice.”
Mashburn recalls people-watching after the first event, as former strangers connected over the setlist. For her, the day already promises more of those connections, which she hopes remain even after the auditorium empties.
“Music is the great unifier,” she says.
Ogi Overman takes a seat in one of the back rows, scanning as people file in. Blocks of seats fill not 10 minutes after the doors open. Overman pitched the idea of This CommUnity Sings to both Mashburn and the Carolina Theatre’s staff after seeing a video of a group of Toronto community members singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Overman says. “It was so good.”
With a total of nine cameras and a Facebook livestream, the volunteers prepare to broadcast the experience. As for the songs themselves, the organizers chose the type of hits that get people belting lyrics in the shower and rocking out in the car.
“I think ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is gonna kill,” Overman says. “If we can pull off ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ it will have been a good day.”
When the crowd calms down, Music Director Wesley McCleary-Small rises from the front row and steps onstage to conduct a trio of songs. The chorus teacher repeats an instruction.
“Be prepared to be dramatic,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to be dramatic.”
The piano riff from Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” flinches, stopping as people jump in too early. McCleary-Small resets the song. Again, he leads the assembly, the singers more confident with the correct timing.
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” McCleary-Small sings. “Was a good friend of mine!”
“Yeah, he was!” Someone shouts from the rear.
As the piano rings out the gospel-rock song, ASL interpreters translate the lyrics. A man with graying hair stands up to clap, while a small toddler seated beside him looks up from the popcorn box half his size in his lap and starts swaying back and forth.
Having taught different age groups, including his class of teenagers, McCleary-Smalls emphasizes the importance an iconic hit has on guests with no public singing experience. He remembers the moment students connect with the notes, and then with each other. He compares the two, but approaches This CommUnity Sings more casually than a classroom.
“I thought,” he says, “‘maybe I should treat this like a karaoke night.”
An elderly woman grips her walker and stands, waving her arms above her head to “We Are the World” by USA for Africa. A teenage boy in an aisle seat contorts his face into theatrical expressions.
The time comes for Queen’s six-minute epic, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” A man turns to face the woman behind him, and they jam out on imaginary instruments, only the folded-up seat remaining in between them.
“Go ahead add your air guitar, your air drums,” McCleary-Small shouts, “air harmonica, even some air bagpipes!”