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Thursday, December 10, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pat Wright's Total Experience -- Seattle's Mistress Of Music Lives The Gospel She Sings

Seattle Times Theater Critic

The sanctuary of the Oneness Center, a storefront church on East Union Street, is the size of a modest living room. On this particular Sunday, the assembled flock is only a dozen or so strong: several African-American women, some restless children, one man (who also serves as church pianist).

Patrinell Wright is not at all disturbed by the small turnout for this Sunday service. Gesturing expansively and gracefully in her flowing white robe, making eye contact with each person present, she preaches fervently about compassion and taking responsibility for one's life, about finding the strength to go on.

She speaks of her own background, as one of eight children in a Carthage, Texas, clan, recalling the rough impact of her father's death when she was a teenager, and her mother's perseverance.

A warm, handsome woman of 54, with a wide-open face and generous smile, Wright is a natural preacher: eloquent, stirring, magnetic.

But it's when she launches into the gospel hymn "God Is So Good" that Wright gives even nonbelievers a taste of the divine.

The voice pouring out of her is powerful and deep-hued, a spine-tingling force of nature that transforms a simple chapel into a cathedral. If there is such a thing as a pipeline to heaven, one imagines this voice would be its earthly conduit.

You can hear that voice lift and soar in the production of the Langston Hughes gospel musical "Black Nativity," which opens tomorrow night at the Intiman Theatre.

But many Seattle dwellers have already encountered Wright's awesome pipes. The founder and leader of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, Wright and her group sang for President Bill Clinton, at scores of fund-raisers, and at festivals and concerts, she notes proudly, "in 38 states and 13 countries." They've also made four records, and appeared in TV ads ("to pay our bills").

Wright's fans include ex-Mayor Norm Rice and public radio star Garrison Keillor. (Pat and choir have sung on his show, "A Prairie Home Companion.") It's no stretch to dub her Seattle's First Lady of Gospel.

"Pat is very committed and serious about herself, her world, her community, her religion," observes Jacqueline Moscou, the director of "Black Nativity," and a collaborator with Wright on other projects. "Pat's also tireless. Somehow she can fit a 48-hour day into 24 hours."

In her cramped, tidy office at the Oneness Center one recent morning, Wright bristled with energy while discussing her latest challenges.

One is running her own Central District church, which opened just 18 months ago. Preaching, Wright says, was inevitable for her. "I've had the calling since I was 14. My father was a Baptist preacher, and I knew I was meant to carry on his work.

Answering a call

"But for a long time I didn't want to deal with that. It was too hard, being female in the traditional, male-dominated situation of the church."

Eventually, though, she "decided to obey the voice of God, not man" and pulled together the resources to create the Oneness Center, a nondenominational Baptist ministry.

"We're really a mission," she emphasizes. "I'm not building a congregation, I just want this place to be here for people who need us."

Wright, who relies on a core group of 10 volunteers to keep the Oneness Center going, feels "churches shouldn't be restrictive, but open, loving and caring. Anyone who walks into this door can get tanked up here, get spiritual energy for the week. I never know who's coming or why, and I don't care that sometimes we have 100 people or just 10."

A new role

Another challenge for Wright is her first bona fide acting role, in "Black Nativity" alongside the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney, retired pastor of Seattle's Mt. Zion Baptist Church (also a novice actor).

Wright was Moscou's first choice to select and direct the large choir for "Black Nativity." An annual holiday presentation in other cities, the show relates the story of Christ's birth through poetry and dramatic narration by the late Hughes (spoken by McKinney, Cynthia Jones, Wright and several others), and via a profusion of gospel songs with lyrics by Hughes and music by Alex Bradford.

"The reason I said yes to Jacqui on this is that it gives me the opportunity to sing about what I've believed all my life at a major theater," Wright says. "Also, I get off when people smile, and this will make people smile."

Wright recruited singers from the Urban Rhythms Choir, Seattle Men's Chorus and the choirs of the First A.M.E. Church and other congregations for the show. She'll also play the role known only as "The Woman."

"In the past I've mostly done reader's theater," Wright says. "Now I have to memorize this part, and really work on it. Jacqui isn't letting me get away with a thing!"

In the midst of all her activities, there's one other major new project on Wright's agenda.

Wright formed the Total Experience Gospel Choir in 1973. Now she wants to start a new chorus for "at-risk" girls, ages 10 to 16.

"My heart aches for our young African-American girls," says Wright, herself a wife (to educator Benny Wright), a mother and grandmother. "Many of these children growing up now had teenage, single parents. They didn't get any parenting, because someone forgot to parent their mothers.

"The way they carry themselves, talk, dress - it just grieves me to see young people who have so little self-esteem, and wind up being parents themselves so early. If we can just get these girls turned around, they'll pull up the boys."

Her new choir, Wright promises won't just be about the music. "I'm gonna be Mama. We had 500 young people, boys and girls, go through Total Experience. Music is the magnet that draws them in, but I'll get them to talk with me about everything else in their lives."

Wright already has requests for this future group to perform, and a 48-passenger bus to transport them to concert dates.

Much work remains ahead. But spend a little time in Pat Wright's powerful presence, and you believe she could very well part seas and move mountains.

As a song made famous by her gospel idol, the late Mahalia Jackson, goes: "I'm going to live the life I sing about in my songs." In Seattle, Pat Wright keeps living what she sings, and singing what she believes.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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