Lord, send the healing.
For this we know: There is a balm in Gilead to heal the soul.
—from Healing by Richard Smallwood
To highlight the little-known and often overlooked history of the Black cemeteries in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC, The Alliance for New Music-Theatre — in collaboration with Mt. Zion Church, Mt. Zion–Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc., and Dumbarton United Methodist Church — is developing an original work of music-theater called Voices of Zion: The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project. The Alliance will share a preview of that project when it presents The Music of Ronald Walton Wednesday, November 10, 2021.
The free program will feature selections by Ronald “Trey” Walton, a 19-year-old Duke Ellington School of the Arts graduate and current University of the District of Columbia piano performance major who was commissioned to compose the music for Voices of Zion. The musical director for Voices of Zion, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, is well known for her work in a variety of arenas, especially WPAS Men and Women of the Gospel Choir.
I recently had a chance to talk with both Walton and Curenton about the Voices of Zion project and the upcoming concert.
Evelyn Simpson-Curenton: The importance of this project? It is dealing with the history of Georgetown that a lot of us didn’t know anything about until recently. This history of these slaves who were buried here. At one point there had been talk of digging this cemetery up, which has happened with a lot of cemeteries where slaves have been dug up without people even knowing that we had been buried in some of these areas. And the fact that it’s getting a chance to be portrayed through music and drama. We have a young, aspiring composer. It’s wonderful that we’re reaching our younger generation with this kind of history that is being lost in general.
Ronald “Trey” Walton: Yes, the basic idea is telling the history behind this cemetery — the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and the Female Union Band Cemetery — and who’s buried there. I am the organist for Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, that’s how I got I got tied into the project. This project is highlighting the cemetery and the relationship between the two churches [Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and Dumbarton United Methodist Church] and how one church breaks off and starts its own church. And we call that church [the Black church] the Meeting House. And that forms Mt. Zion from out of the white church [Dumbarton]. Two-thirds of the Black population of DC was free and they resided in Georgetown. Realize, Methodists don’t believe in slavery. Slavery is a “no-go.” So, the thing about the churches is they still have this strong relationship even though they are [now] down the street [from each other]. There’s still this strong bond. [It’s just that] the Black church — Mt. Zion — they were tired of being separated from the white congregation [while still being members of the congregation] — even though “in mind” the Methodists don’t believe in slavery.
Simpson-Curenton: What I found fascinating is the idea that this is something that was going on among a lot of our Black churches. There were so many of the churches that were doing similar things because our people were relegated to sit many times in balconies and not being able to sit down on the floor where most of the other congregants, especially white congregants, would be. Until there would be incidents many times that would happen. For instance, at Richard Allen AME they were told that they couldn’t kneel during the prayer — I think it was at a communion service or a particular service. And so what happened is the parishioners said, “We will no longer tolerate it.” And they walked out. And so, to see this happening here in the DC area it’s like something happened to make our people say, “No, we will not tolerate that. We will start our own church.”
Walton: The Black cemetery: the people that were buried in this graveyard have had a major impact on Georgetown. I didn’t know it was a graveyard until I joined Mt. Zion Church on the staff there. It’s being kept up now, but I used to see people walking their dogs [there]. I think these were residents of Georgetown or Dupont Circle because the graveyard sits in between both. Practicing their golf swings, disrespecting this sacred land; even though there’s a sign — there’s a beautiful sign now — they just didn’t care. There’s a sense of them saying, “We don’t care that this is a graveyard and this is sacred.”
Ford: Who were the people who were practicing their golf swings in the cemetery? Were they Black people? White people?
Walton: They were white people.
Georgetown was separate from DC. It was its own community. Everybody knew each other from M Street to P Street, Q Street to R Street, everyone knew each other.
Ford: When we talk about people knowing each other within these various blocks, were you talking about white people, Black people?
Walton: They were Black people, Black people, Black people, Black people. There is a documentary that Georgetown University released in the 1980s. It interviews residents of Georgetown past and present. One man says: “There were white people there. And they [Black children] played with the white people on M Street. They didn’t have a conflict with the white children.”
It wasn’t a shock to me that a lot of the children went to schools like Dunbar, Cardozo, Phelps, predominantly Black schools. But they had no problem. It was fascinating about how these Black people in Georgetown were a family. They were a community. They were what you heard about, what you read in schools: about sticking together, being a brotherhood, what Black brotherhood meant.
On November 10 while we will hear excerpts from Voices of Zion, which is still a work-in-progress, we will also hear other music that you have written. What should we expect?
Walton: Some of my other compositions that will be featured at the concert on November 10 will be a flute and piano suite titled “Childhood,” in which each movement is based upon games I played as a child. “Sketches of the Lion,” an etude for the African talking drum that displays complex and polyrhythms for both drum and piano.
Simpson-Curenton: I don’t know if you’re picking it up, but this is a renaissance man. I first met him coming from Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He played tuba. I said to him, “You play tuba?! You play tuba?!” And then he came with this wonderful piece. It was a band arrangement if I’m not mistaken. So, being able to write for band; then he’s a wonderful pianist. I’ve heard him play for people who have been pianists from other countries, playing these wonderful, difficult pieces; then an organist and a composer. You heard he said he was first listening to Porgy and Bess at what grade was that again? Eighth grade? And so now he has imbibed this music and then having to use some of this music that he has been listening to since he was a child now in his writing. This has been a journey for a while. And that’s something that’s unique.
Trey beautifully does a fusion of genres. I see jazz and I hear contemporary classical, some of it’s atonal and what we call bi-tonal — where you have two different keys kind of going against each other. But very interesting genres mixed together so you do hear jazz, you do hear some classical music. There’s a touch of musical theater in the way it’s written.
I’m noticing that the younger composers and newer composers at this point are exploring different eras to explain things. For example, in Hamilton, he [Lin Manuel Miranda] is going back to an era of history but he’s dealing with hip-hop. What we’re doing these days is that we’re not necessarily staying in an era. What’s good about that is it’s more pleasing and open to a general audience.
The events addressed in The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project are the stuff of trauma. It has been well established that the healing of trauma requires returning to the site of the original hurt and consciously inserting new experiences/memories that counter the hurt. Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and Dumbarton United Methodist Church have been involved in the hard discussions, shared programs that are necessary for reconstruction and reconciliation both between their congregations and throughout the District of Columbia (and for that matter, across this nation).
The ultimate Voices of Zion project aims at being a kind of ritual of remembrance and healing of the events that happened. The performance will begin with the gathering of the audience with singers at the Female Union Band and Mt. Zion cemeteries. From there, the audience will process to Dumbarton United Methodist Church, where they will be joined by the orchestra and two choirs to complete the telling of the story and recovery of a community’s memory through music, lyrics, and enactment.
As Evelyn Curenton says: “The opening November 10 kind of gives people a tablespoon feeling as to what these various arias and duets and trios will be about. We kind of go back and forth through this creative process. So, there is this kind of song and dance. But I think you only get to dance if the other person is willing to dance with you — there’s nothing worse than a dancer who’ll stand there with his feet on the floor and he won’t move. But there’s a beautiful dance going on between Trey and me because he’s a willing dancer.”
The Music of Ronald Walton will be presented Wednesday, November 10, 2021, at 7:30 pm at St. Thomas’ Parish, 1517 18th Street NW, Washington, DC. The event is free, but register here for tickets. For more information, visit Alliance for New Music-Theatre.
St. Thomas’ Parish COVID safety policy: Masks are required with the exception of those performing or presenting. There is no vaccination check.
(The full work Voices of Zion will be featured in a series of performances premiering as part of DC Emancipation Day on April 16, 2022, and then as an immersive theater work in May 2022 in Georgetown.)
ABOUT ALLIANCE FOR NEW MUSIC-THEATRE
Committed to changing the conversation through the arts, Alliance for New Music-Theatre partners with key arts organizations, embassies, and other institutions, helping to foster through cultural diplomacy the capital as a world-class center for cross-fertilization in the arts. We create opportunities for new voices to create mostly original works, bringing stories to the stage that matter and music that breaks open hearts. Our vision is forwarded through our strategic partnerships, a commitment to the necessary extended developmental process of original works, and the nurturing of community relationships. We also support the greater DC theater community through our Live & About program by taking audiences to music-theater productions throughout the city and engaging them in enlivening discussions that raise critical appreciation of music-theater forms and content, which we believe improves our community and the globe.