Christopher Johnson hunches nervously on his stool, waiting for the contest to begin. His hair is neatly braided ,and he sports a dapper sweater beneath his banana-yellow blazer. "I wasn't even going to come," he says, "but my wife convinced me."
It's Saturday afternoon, and Johnson is one of 15 contestants selected from the previous day's auditions for Gospel Dream, a new television show. Now the final 15 wait anxiously at the Gibson Lounge, knowing that soon all but three will be eliminated.
Gospel Dream, which will air this fall on the recently formed Gospel Music Channel, follows the format of the wildly successful series American Idol. Three judges with music-industry clout travel from city to city, paring down the crowd of contestants from each location to three regional winners. Memphis was the last regional stop on the taping before the series heads to Atlanta for the finals. The show's overall winner will be awarded a record contract.
Compared to the other locales on the regional circuit such as Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, or Chicago, Memphis is quite small. The city's gospel community, however, turned out in force.
"This is by far the biggest turnout per capita we've had," said Kim Lloyd, the show's production manager. "Usually we have to move the empty chairs out during the taping, but here we have a packed house."
The show treads a fine line between reality and piety television.
"This is the music I feel. It's about drawing people in. It's about the message," says Johnson. When asked how he hopes to separate himself from the pack, the North Memphis resident says that he has performed not only on the gospel circuit but as an R&B singer as well. "Hopefully, from doing that, I've developed a stage presence that the judges will notice."
The judges are well aware of the dual worlds the competition straddles. Music executive Max Siegel says, "We're obviously looking for someone with the commercial attributes to compete in the industry, but we also want someone with a well-developed music ministry."
Despite the fact that each contestant gets only 30 seconds, members of the audience are moved by the performances. The judges, however, make sure to remind performers that faith is only one part of the competition. Andy Argyrakis, the Simon Cowell of the show, chides one contestant, saying, "I would like to see you direct some of your attention to the audience and not just to God."
In the end, only one Memphian -- Johnson -- is chosen to continue on to the finals in Atlanta. Overcome by emotion, he begins to cry onstage. "You go ahead and cry, baby," someone shouts from the audience.
"When you sing alone, you can make a lot of mistakes," says Johnson, "but if you let God in, he'll turn the light on for you."