Someone in the Federal Writers' Project realized the last remaining Americans who had lived as slaves would shortly disappear. So an effort was made to find these people and collect their stories. By that time, almost all the remaining ex-slaves were more than 80 years old. Nonetheless, more than 2,000 were interviewed, resulting in a compilation of 10,000-plus pages. James de Jongh's Do Lord Remember Me, recently given a sterling production by Dillard University, is a theater piece based on those interviews.
In Andrea Frye's staging, the play began with the young actors sitting at a makeup table in front of a set that showed the porch and front yard of The Virginia Valley Home for the Colored. The cast donned wigs, put on makeup and became an aged group of ex-slaves living in the 1930s. More than just a visual prologue, the transformation connected the actors of today with the Great Depression in the same way that the characters they played were connected to the antebellum South. Astoundingly, the transformation worked. Somehow, this ensemble of students found a way to be comfortably and convincingly five or six decades beyond their years.
In the playbill, the ensemble was listed without character names. And, the geriatric conversion was so complete -- not only in makeup, but also in body language and attitude -- that I couldn't pick out with any certainty who played what from the attractive youthful faces in the lobby photos. So here they are, as though in a printed curtain call: Corey Cantrell, Giani Clarkson, Derrick Deal, Joyce Deal, Erin Gillum, Kelly Henton, Kyle Jackson, Brittany James, Patience Rayford, Angela Thomas, Katreequia Thompson and Ashley Turner.
When the play begins, an invisible, imagined WPA interviewer has just arrived to gather stories of slavery. We take it from the reactions of the residents at this old-age home that the interviewer is white. Not that the residents are hostile. Their reactions, like their stories, reveal a wide range of personalities and life experiences. For some, it's, "Why sure, honey, what you want to know?" and for others, it's more on the lines of, "After what I've lived, I don't have no white people in my home, I won't allow it!" For we're not dealing here with ideological positions; we're dealing with a variety of real individuals who have been picked by chance or God to stay alive, until someone came along to learn their tale.
And the tales are mesmerizing. Inevitably, the raw brutality of the system comes through: the violent beatings, the breaking up of families, the humiliation of being put up for sale. But the play gains its special power from the idiosyncratic nature of particular episodes in which the master/slave relationship is revealed with that weird complexity that we recognize as living truth.
To take one example of many, a woman tells of "the young master," when he was a child. She was his favorite playmate. He would come down to the slave cabin and call for her. One day they went out to collect bark (which was used in the laundry room). But the boy brought along a forbidden ax and as luck would have it, accidentally cut off the girl's finger. He felt terribly sorry and terribly scared. He got the girl to promise not to tell on him and said he would give her some sweet cake in return for her silence. She kept her word. Nonetheless, the boy's mother figured out what happened. She took the boy inside and beat him (white children were never beaten in front of slaves). The boy, however, was also as good as his word. "I got my sweet bread," she tells us with just a slight blush of pride and pleasure -- as much a part of the memory as the blood and the pain.
Do Lord Remember Me also featured frequent and effective a cappella songs and hymns and a good deal of humor, some of it self-deprecating; for example, several folktales about how the different races got their colors.
Maria Darnell designed the costumes, while Cothreal Clark designed the set and Terrance Holloway the lighting for this visually pleasing show.
"Uplifting" is a suspicious word. But Do Lord Remember Me was uplifting, without -- or possibly because of -- not trying to be.