“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” is a traditional lyrical lament long associated with the hardships suffered by African Americans. Audiences at the revival of Do Lord Remember Me will be able to get a sense of precisely what those “troubles” were and how they affected the enslaved and the newly emancipated in the 19th century.
From 1936 to 1938 the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project transcribed 2,300 oral histories in 17 states, assembling a massive bank of memories called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. James de Jongh’s Do Lord Remember Me is derived from these first-person accounts by ex-slaves, recalled when they were in their 80s and 90s. The two-act play dramatizes about 20 of these ex-slave interviews recorded by the FWP.
Lord’s director Wilson Bell notes that during an era of widespread unemployment and poverty the initiative had dual benefits: “The process of doing this created work for writers and those artists who actually collected the oral histories. All of this — in addition to trying to preserve the history of what had happened — was also an attempt to create jobs” for women and men of letters. Among those who received work through the government-subsidized FWP were authors-to-be James Baldwin and Richard Wright (Native Son), whom Bell previously portrayed in the 1990s in Willard Simms’ Wright From America at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at LA’s Fountain and Zephyr theaters.
“African-American people who had been enslaved and who went through the transition were interviewed for posterity purposes decades after freedom,” says Bell. He explains that the verbatim biographies are enacted on the stage “with lots of blocking… The play is performed in a very streamlined process. The stage is fairly bare… There are a few props… changes of shirts suggest a different character. It’s a combination of storytelling, monologues or interspersed in the monologue is interaction with another actor. Most of the time all of the actors are onstage, either participating in the recounting of another person’s stories or in a frozen position waiting to tell their story.”
Bell adds, “There are white slaveholders depicted. Characters depicted don’t necessarily have verbiage, sometimes it’s just their physical representation, but sometimes they do have dialogue. Some of them are masters, overseers or the missus of the house. All the actors are African Americans and they play any character in the play, whether they be white or black.” Audiences are cued to a role’s ethnicity because “very often comments are preceded by ‘missus said’ or ‘massah did this,’” Bell points out.
“This is not a musical per se,” Bell says, “but it is a play with music. The music is old Negro spirituals,” among them the eponymous song from which the play’s title is derived, as well as a portion of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which, with its haunting melody and refrain, is a veritable anthem of the African-American experience that has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson and Lena Horne.
Bell was born and raised in New Orleans, living in the Lower Ninth Ward until he was 13, then moving to the city’s Algiers district. He attended Loyola University. It’s ironic that the actor/director’s home state of Louisiana was the only former member of the Confederacy that did not participate in the WPA’s 1930s Slave Narratives undertaking. Bell relocated to LA in 1993 and has acted in TV shows such as NYPD Blue and Frasier and onstage as Troy in August Wilson’s Fences and Jesus in Godspell.
He says, “This show is one of my favorite pieces I’ve directed in L.A. It has been produced a couple of times before,” with Bell at the helm both times. In 2006 he directed Lord at the Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood and in 2007 at Theatre/Theater on West Pico Boulevard to “quite good audience response and critical acclaim,” Bell says. In 2008 Lord’s Paul Wong won the NAACP Theatre Award for best musical director. James Esposito, who saw an early version of Lord in the 1980s, produced the two prior L.A. productions, as well as the current show — all three of them for Chromolume Theatre. (Long before she directed The Lion King and Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Julie Taymor was the scenic designer for the 1982 and1984 Off-Broadway productions. Samuel French published de Jongh’s text in 1984.)
Bell says the opening of the current version of Lord was postponed a week because “the rehearsal process was fairly short and there’s lots of dialogue there. We just needed a little bit more time to put the best foot forward. So I decided to give it another week to simmer before putting it out.”
What made the play’s previous LA runs so outstanding, Bell says, “is the story of American history and the joy that comes through, the joy that is the strength that got these people through that ‘peculiar institution.’” This history is “a continual process” for all Americans of whatever race, he adds. “We must learn from our past to absolutely prevent re-visiting it in the future. That is so relevant in terms of Muslims and American issues, in terms of terrorism right now, particularly in the last week.”
Referring to the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, Bell muses: “Something happened with a couple of people who happened to have become Americans after having come from Chechnya.” He says one immediate response has been to associate their Muslim backgrounds with their recent activities “and to make them ‘other.’ And not figure out that that doesn’t define all Chechens, that doesn’t define all terrorists. Beyond that, we have to find a way, as Rodney King said, to ‘get along’ and to learn from the mistakes we’ve made, before alienating and ‘otherizing’ people, and how that informs us to do it better this time.”
Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Lord is also timely because America is observing the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. “That’s actually a great thing to connect it to,” declares Bell. “It’s really relevant. The point is we need to remember where we have come from, so we can better find where we want to get to. All of us, as Americans, need to embrace our history. The Civil War was not just freedom for black people — but for white people and any other color in between because it freed us from that peculiar institution, it freed us from a wrong that is continually being righted even today.”
For youngsters or others who claim America is now a “post-racial” society and that Lord’s subject matter is ancient history, Bell responds: “Every other week there’s an example why it’s not over. What I find is people make that comment, and when they’re pressed they say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not completely over but it’s better.’ And my response to that is: ‘If you’re saying it’s better that means it’s not done.’ And if it’s not done, we’ve got to keep learning about it so that it is done… When it’s finished we won’t say, ‘it’s getting better,’ we’d say: ‘It is better, it’s done.’”
Does Bell think that even though most slavery in America ended about 150 years ago that there’s still a legacy in America that can be traced back to enslavement? “I don’t think that, I know it. Most Americans who are honest with themselves, who have eyes and ears, know that as well. A lot of it is in hip-hop music, which multi-cultural people sing, and often times just sing words without listening to the phrases that are there. In the court system, if an African American commits a crime he’s six times [likelier] to get a stronger sentence than his white counterpart committing the same crime,” claims Bell.
This is where, for Bell, the play’s the thing: “It’s the role of theater — it’s largely about entertainment and there is education there, certainly. Theater does this thing in a way that politics in general don’t do… It’s more than just talking to the head, but theater talks to the heart. It can touch, it can create empathy and sympathy, and that can often be more revelatory than having debates. It can present situations that people will really think about.”
Bell is a big fan of Lincoln because of “what it says about the better angels of our nation when we figure it out in the right way. We do have those times in our history and this was one of those moments… Slavery was a stench and it needed to be cleaned… [Lord is] about joy. The characters laugh to keep from crying, and it is that joy that pushed them through that pain so that they got to the other side.”
So, lord knows that while Lord may have some Kleenex moments, some audience members may also find themselves crying tears of joy. Although author Gore Vidal caustically called our country “The United States of Amnesia,” Do Lord Remember Me offers an experience that could help contemporary theatergoers to never forget the harsh horrors of chattel slavery — or the bliss of liberation — by interweaving a web of collective recollection through a theatrical persistence of memory. As his name suggests, Wilson Bell is sounding a wake-up call from the slumber of forgetfulness.
Do Lord Remember Me, Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., LA 90016. Opens tonight. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through May 19. Tickets: $25. www.chromolume-theatre.com. 323-510-2688.
*All Do Lord Remember Me production photos by James Esposito.