September Penn: The Power of Song

Musical theater crosses boundaries
performer standing in a spotlight

September Penn is a singer and songwriter, based out of Los Angeles, California, and at the time of this writing, a soon to be ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who will serve as a parish pastor. She also runs a nonprofit along with her husband, Ivan Penn, called The Power of Song Inc. which, along with creating theater productions, also serves as a platform for artists to collaborate over projects addressing various community issues. The Power of Song Inc. seeks to educate young people and the community at large about the Civil Rights Movement and other various social justice issues through song, theater, and art. Its flagship production is called Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Song, and it consists of about 150 cast members including 2 choirs and several players from other organizations. 

Music and the arts have always been part of September’s life. She did a lot of singing in the church growing up and in college became more involved in theater. However, the church she grew up in did not foster her love for the arts outside their walls. That changed when her husband got a fellowship at Stanford University. “When we were at Stanford both of us really got freed up to the breadth and broadness of who God is, and not just what the church sanctions.” She saw a notice for an audition for the Vagina Monologues and it was in that rehearsal space where she saw the healing that can happen through theater, and even experienced the healing of past traumas herself. This led September to dive back into the theater arts and become associated with the production Black Nativity, which tells the story of the Christ Child through gospel music.

In and with the community

The first production she embarked on creating herself was focused on telling the stories of people experiencing homelessness, called The Cardboard Stories. She wrote all the music for it and spent a lot of time sitting with people, listening to their stories. In 2014 a state representative from Florida (where they were living at the time) named Daryl Rouson invited September and her husband to create another original production, about the music of the Civil Rights Movement. The production became Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Song

September strives to have their productions be very community based and works with other groups in the communities they perform in. They are very ecumenical, working with many different denominations to put on a production. “When I do a live presentation I’ll show a couple of pictures, because in the last shot of the production, everyone is on the stage, and honestly it looks like this beautiful representation of the Body of Christ. It’s all colors, all generations.” September pointed out that the music of the Civil Rights Movement is very inclusive, and she wanted that reflected in the production through the music chosen. The music represented is extensive with songs from the Black church experience to folk singers like Pete Seeger, to Joan Baez. 

Not only does ministry happen through the productions themselves, but lives are also changed backstage. September still sees healing and hope through the rehearsal space. She shared how she has watched one of their members grow from someone so shy he couldn’t look anyone in the eyes, to having lines on the stage and taking viola lessons from professionals he connected with from the cast. “It’s shocking to have professionals working with community people who, maybe they’ve done community theater, maybe they haven’t. Maybe this is their first time in the rehearsal space. The cross-cultural connection that is taking place gives people a lot of hope and the possibility that maybe I can do this too!”

As someone who is also a church professional, September sees the theater side of her ministry as an extension of who she is and as a tool for community outreach. She also envisions using theater as a discipleship tool for the local church. “I envision doing various theater practices as part of discipleship disciplines. Whether we gather once a week and pull saints from the Bible to consider their character stories, or whether it be trying to hear the songs of the Bible. You can lift those lyrics and you can put them to music. I envision all these ideas being discipleship tools.”

To close our interview, I asked September what her favorite Civil Rights song is and she said “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” her performance of which is here:  

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round

Turn me ’round, turn me ’round

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’

Keep on a-talkin’

Marchin’ up to freedom land

If you would like to learn more about September or her productions, you can visit her here:

https://thepowerofsong.org/september-penn

Instagram: @septemberpenn

Instagram: @thepowerofsong

Timothy Bowman

Timothy Bowman

Timothy Bowman is a Luther Seminary graduate, a co-pastor with his wife at Zion Lutheran Church in Stewartville, MN, and a member of the Seeds Project.

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