Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s ‘Voices of Zion’ to dig deep into history

Immersive 'Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project' to perform on-site in May.

Alliance for New Music-Theatre — in partnership with Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park, Inc. — announces the creation of Voices of Zion, an original work and immersive music-theater experience. Voices of Zion will perform on-location in Georgetown throughout the month of May leading to a special final Memorial Day celebration.

The Alliance (ANMT) embarked on this project in 2020 in partnership with Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc., which is responsible for preserving and commemorating the two adjacent Black cemeteries in Georgetown, and in honor of Dumbarton United Methodist Church and Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, the area’s oldest African American congregation. The work aims to give voice to the long-overlooked historic Black community and key figures, many of whom are buried in this UNESCO site of memory, a designated sacred site, and to shed light on the rich and complicated history of America that has excluded the contributions and narratives of African Americans. These performances are part of the Sestercentennial (250th Anniversary) of Old Methodist Church, now Dumbarton UMC, and just past the 200th anniversary of Mt. Zion UMC. In addition to the “traveling feast” of stories, music, and “procession,” ANMT offers the spirit of Voices of Zion as a way of coming together for fellowship and conversation about the work still needed in this city and beyond for equity, justice, and healing.

Silhouettes of some of the historical characters to be featured in ‘Voices of Zion.” Photos courtesy of Alliance for New Music-Theatre.

Voices of Zion focuses on the 19th-century history of Georgetown and layers the stories of several identified figures: Female Union Band Society (FUBS) leader Mary Burrell (whose monument keeps watch over the cemetery), Hannah Pope and her husband Alfred Pope (known for being one of the orchestrators in “The Pearl Affair”), the astute Mary Beckett, “The Mayor of Black Georgetown” Charles Turner, teacher and abolitionist Mary Billings, and a trio of FUBS members, Gracy Duckett, Matilda Cartwright, and Mother Nannie Diggs. Their stories illustrate the complexities of Georgetown’s history, a community made up of enslaved and freed men and women, who at times were living, working, and worshipping together.

Voices of Zion also exposes the rifts within the Old Methodist Church and indeed throughout America — between abolitionists and segregationists, between slave owners and those they enslaved, and between Union and Confederate sympathizers. The selected characters share a common goal: to see the cemeteries preserved as a monument to their lives and legacies, a resting place of dignity for themselves and their contemporaries. They shine a light on the urgency that Black cemeteries face here and elsewhere, sacred sites that continue to be forgotten, lost, and desecrated through erosion and development plans.

To tell this story, Voices of Zion brings together some of the area’s brightest professional artists with many community partners to help “dig deeper” into understanding the city’s history. Mt. Zion’s young organist, Ronald “Trey” Walton, already considered a “star” alumnus of Duke Ellington School for the Arts, was selected as the composer. Up-and-coming Baltimore-based singer-writer Jarrod Lee came on board as librettist. Award-winning Stage Director Thomas W. Jones II and the extraordinary Evelyn Simpson Curenton as Music Director lead the team of singer-actors, some of the area’s finest: Roz White, Ayana Reed Ogunsunlade, Cara Schaefer, Sheri Jackson, Dr. Lloyd Mallory, and Brandon Lockhart. Costume co-designers April Carter and Frankie Bethea from Howard University are bringing in students to participate in both research and construction.

Howard students Moriah Taylor Rutherford and Rebecca Celestin examine costumes co-designed for ‘Voices of Zion’ by April Carter and Frankie Bethea. Photo by Frankie Bethea.

Public performances of Voices of Zion are only one manifestation of this community-wide project, which aims to unite Washington, DC, around the cause of preserving the cemeteries and celebrating the history of this neighborhood they represent. There are plans already underway to extend the project by developing educational materials and curricula designed to be distributed throughout DC Public Schools, encouraging young people to become involved in “artistic excavation” of primary source documents, including headstones and wills, and to employ critical thinking to unlocking history. The process of engaging in the research offers our community the opportunity for excavating more of “the whole story” of our city. Local guided walks and seminars and a permanent installation of “stations” at the cemetery featuring music and monologues from the show will allow individuals to be inspired in their self-guided tours. A video documentary will be offered so that audiences can join the experience from a distance.

Pages from Composer Ronald Walton’s score for ‘Voices of Zion,’ as printed (left) and in draft. Photos courtesy of Alliance for New Music-Theatre.

Truly embedded in the community, the Voices of Zion project unites stakeholders from a broad range of social, spiritual, and business sectors as partners. They include the Coalition of African American Performing Artists, The Rotary Clubs of DC and Bethesda, United Presbyterian Church Georgetown University, Headstones and History, Oakhill Cemetery, Dumbarton House, and the Colonial Dames of America Oakhill. ANMT has also partnered with Paul Grant of Ascender Films, for the artwork and his direction of a team of professional photographers and filmmakers to design the artwork for the project and documentation of the work for future educational purposes.

Voices of Zion — The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project will be offered in immersive performances in Georgetown on the evenings of May 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, and 21, 2022, starting at 7 pm. A special final performance at 2 pm on Memorial Day, May 30, will include the traditional Black ritual laying of flowers.

The Mount Zion – Female Union Band Society Cemeteries where ‘Voices of Zion’ will be performed each weekend in May.

On-site performances of Voices of Zion start in the Mt. Zion & Female Union Band Society cemeteries, 2501 Mill Road NW, Washington, DC (entrance off of Q & 27th Streets NW), with an introduction to the characters before the audience joins in a procession to Dumbarton UMC, 3133 Dumbarton Street NW, for Part II of the work in which the orchestra and members of the two church choirs will join the ensemble. Tickets for the immersive performances ($35) are available online. For group sale discounts email info@newmusictheatre.org or call 202-256-7614. Wear comfortable shoes for the cemetery and be prepared to walk through Georgetown for approximately 15 minutes. In case of inclement weather, all May performances will be held at Dumbarton UMC.

VOICES OF ZION
Music by Ronald Trey Walton | Libretto by Jarrod Lee
Directed by Thomas W. Jones II | Music Direction by Evelyn Simpson Curenton
with
Sheri Jackson as Mary Beckett
Brandon Lockhart as Alfred Pope
Dr. Lloyd Mallory Jr. as Charles Turner
Ayana Reed Ogunsunlade as Hannah Pope
Cara Schaefer as Mary Billings
Roz White as Mary Burrell

ABOUT ALLIANCE FOR NEW MUSIC-THEATRE

Alliance for New Music-Theatre believes that through collaboration and in partnership with key arts organizations, embassies, and other institutions, we can transform the capital into a world-class center for cross-fertilization in the arts. We can create opportunities for new voices and bring stories to the stage that matter — with music that breaks open hearts. We share a vision that through bold and healing art-making and practices we improve our community and the globe.

To learn more about the Mt Zion – FUBS cemeteries, go to mtzion-fubs.org

SEE ALSO: Alliance for New Music-Theatre to preview ‘Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project’ (interview feature by Gregory Ford)

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