A glorious score and lovely voices raise the dead in ‘Voices of Zion’

In 'The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project,' a new site-specific work by Alliance for New Music-Theatre, the deceased confront their descendants.

Voices of Zion (subtitled The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project) is a new work produced by Alliance for New Music-Theatre in collaboration with Female Union Band Society – Mt. Zion Cemeteries Memorial Park and Dumbarton United Methodist Church. It tells the little-known story of the Black cemeteries of Georgetown: the communities that gave rise to them, their eventual neglect and deterioration, and the urgency for saving them as a monument to the resilience and accomplishments of a people.

The Georgetown neighborhood of today is seen as a commercially developed, prosperous — and white — neighborhood. In its earlier years, however, it was a community “separate from D.C.” that was also the home of a vibrant African American population. Many of these folks were members of the local Methodist denomination. The Methodists were against slavery. Nevertheless, there were points of disagreement, such as the requirement that people of African heritage be consigned to the balcony for worship service, among other ways of being separated from the white parishioners while yet being members of the congregation. Tired of negotiating around their respect and inclusion, the African American congregants formed their own church. This church was eventually named Mt. Zion United Methodist, thus becoming the oldest African American Congregation in Washington, DC. Like most churches, Mt. Zion had its graveyard. Many of the Black community’s movers and shakers were buried there.

Lloyd Mallory as Charles Turner and Ayana Ogunsunlade as Hannah Pope in ‘Voices of Zion.’ Photo by Erika Nizborski.

Over time, with the growth in wealth disparity and gentrification, this burial ground and the adjacent Female Union Band Society Cemetery were neglected, used as dog walks by more recently arrived populations, and the importance of the people buried there was forgotten. When this has happened in other places, it wasn’t long before the land was taken and commercially developed and the bodies that were buried there were simply ignored.

In the storyline of Voices of Zion, the spirits of some of the ancestors who are buried in the cemeteries are awakened by the tolling of bells. As they are awakened, these ancestors assemble and assess their situation. They find things in the cemetery, and in the larger world, to be in too much disarray to allow themselves to rest in peace. So they decide they must leave the graveyard and confront their descendants — Black and white — and raise their voices to urge the listeners to honor, respect, and maintain these sites and the histories of the people attached to them and not allow that history to be erased.

Jarrod Lee’s libretto is saddled with the tasks of being both educational and entertaining. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it sounds like a guide for a museum exhibit that strives to educate and only begrudgingly engages in entertainment. The libretto is at its most successful in the lyrics of those arias that focus on the personal concerns of its characters, and that reflect the resilience of Black folks and their allies in the face of the very real horror and terror in this city during the years when slavery was legal. Originally, the first half of the show was to be presented in the cemeteries. But even in the sanctuary of Dumbarton United Methodist Church (where it was moved because of rain), the images of some of the characters — such as Hannah Pope (a determined and frustrated Ayana Ogunsunlade), who wanders looking for her gravestone and lamenting to her husband, “I can’t find me” — grab your attention. The staging by Thomas W. Jones II was engaging throughout, maintaining our attention when the instructional aspects of the story threatened to become too much.

LEFT: Roz White as Mary Burrell, Sheri Jackson as Mary Beckett, and Cara Schaefer as Mary Billings; CENTER: Djob Lyons and Ayana Ogunsunlade as Alfred and Hannah Pope; RIGHT: Sheri Jackson as Mary Beckett and Roz White as Mary Burrell in ‘Voices of Zion.’ Photos by Erika Nizborski.

The greatest strength of this production is its score and those lovely voices that deliver it. There was one choral moment in which both the lyrics and the notes were unintelligible. But for the rest of the show, the majority of the voices are glorious.

Composer Ronald “Trey” Walton III is still in his early 20s. His work on this score marks him as someone whose career is worth following (and writing home about). The music he has written for this production manages to evoke the feelings of being haunted, both by spirits awakened in the cemetery at night and by memories of a past that won’t be neatly buried and forgotten. Walton’s judicious use of the sustaining pedal and unusual chord changes evoked in me a sense of being wrapped in fog and darkness at night in a cemetery. But there were also musical “ghosts.” Bits of melody familiar from the Great American Songbook were altered and used as introductions, lead-ups, and transitions in some songs.

The music also did some interesting things around the “ghosts” of several songs with which we are familiar. For example, the song “Oh, Freedom” is used as the basis of “Oh, Zion,” but it uses only the first four notes of the song while other staged activity swirls around the suspended melody. Walton’s restraint makes room for a very different and more tantalizing moment than might have happened had he inserted the original traditional song in its entirety. His “Amazing Grace” never states the melody of the original, overly familiar hymn, but it still evokes the humility, repentance, and resolve often produced by performances of that song. Both songs engage and subvert the audience’s memory, imagination, and attention, in service of connecting us more intimately to the story being told to us in the present.

One result of what Walton does with familiar melodies is that if you are inclined to consider singing along to your favorite musical reference, that impulse is redirected in favor of our becoming immersed in the new composition.

The company performs ‘The Pearl Affair’ in ‘Voices of Zion.’ Photo by Erika Nizborski.

Many of the voices in this production are notably powerful and evocative. Cara Schaefer as Mary Billings, a white parishioner who established a school that welcomed African American students, sang “Many Stones” with an intensity that reflected the level of commitment and risk that Billings had to have needed in order to accomplish what she did. In “Isn’t My Money As Good As Any Man’s,” Roz White, Sheri Jackson, and Cara Schaefer deliver a lesson about negotiating the patriarchal humiliation and constraints imposed on women by capitalism in the 19th century, and they do so with ironically comic timing. The performance that batted it out of the park for me was Sheri Jackson’s powerhouse delivery of “How Many?” This song speaks to the recalcitrance of America on both governmental and personal scales to acknowledge and respond to the humanity of people of African heritage. The disrespect for the burial grounds of Black people is a symptom and a symbol of that recalcitrance.

This is not what I thought it would be. 
Seeing us together, but still not free.

Restore what is lost. Bring liberty.
How many?
How many will die till you get it right?

Roz White plays Mary Burrell, an ancestor whose name was misspelled on her tombstone.  After a clear, meticulous setup for it, White got a laugh every time she spoke about her tombstone. How pleasant it is that, in addition to bringing her strong singing to this show, Roz White gives us DC theatergoers yet another lesson in how to act a role and not have the role act you.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Voices of Zion — The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project will be offered next in immersive performances in Georgetown on the evenings of May 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.

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 [email protected] 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.

Lloyd Mallory as Charles Turner leads members of the Female Union Band Society to Old Methodist Church in ‘Voices of Zion.’ Photo by Erika Nizborski.

Music by Ronald “Trey” Walton | Libretto by Jarrod Lee
Directed by Thomas W. Jones II | Music Direction by Evelyn Simpson Curenton

Mary Burrell: Roz White
Matilda Cartwright: Jacquelyn Vaughan
Gracy Duckett: Patrice Underwood
Mother Nanny Diggs: Pamela Carter
FUBS Chorus: Bernie Alston, Ayanna Hardy, Yvette Spears
Hannah Pope: Ayana Ogunsunlade
Alfred Pope: Djob Lyons
Mary Beckett: Sheri Jackson
Mary Billings: Cara Schaefer
Charles Turner: Dr. Lloyd Mallory

Costume Designer: Frankie L. Bethea
Assistant Costume Designer: Monique McKenzie
Lighting Designer: J. Paul Lewis
Special Effects Projections: Monique McKenzie
Technical Director: Matty Griffiths
Stage Managers: Laura Schlachtmeyer & Matty Griffiths
Dramaturgs: Lisa Fager, Susan Galbraith
Wardrobe: Monique McKenzie
Marketing and Publicity: Amy Killion, Cara Schaefer
Social Media: Angelica Maria Bueno Nanez, Roz White
Graphic Designer: Paul Grant and Ascender Communications, inc.
Photography and Video Artists: Paul Grant, Jay Mallin, Mark Wiley, J. Paul Lewis, and Erika Nizborski

Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s ‘Voices of Zion’ to dig deep into history (news story)
Alliance for New Music-Theatre to preview ‘Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project’ (interview with Composer Ronald “Trey” Walton and Musical Director Evelyn Simpson-Curenton by Gregory Ford)


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