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Last night I went to see A Trip to Bountiful on Broadway. The current adaptation of the 1953 Horton Foote play stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams, and Cicely Tyson. Tyson plays Mama Watts, who longs to see her (fictional) hometown of Bountiful, Texas, before she dies. When her son and daughter-in-law, with whom she lives in Houston, refuse to take her, she "runs away."

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a front-page article about how when Mama Watts breaks out into the old hymn "Blessed Assurance," many members of the audience join in.

Under normal circumstances the Broadway experience does not include audience participation, even when catchy songs from classic musicals are being performed. . . .

Several black audience members, interviewed after a recent performance, seemed surprised that anyone might not know the hymn. “A lot of people in the audience grew up with that song,” said Michelle Crawford, who first sang it when she attended the Thessalonia Baptist Church in the  Bronx as a child. “Nobody had to put the words out there in front of anybody. They knew that song.”

The singalong, too, struck black audience members as unremarkable. “I chimed in,” said Pinkey Headley, who sings the hymn at her Methodist church in Brooklyn. “It’s the natural thing to do.”    

Of course, the author of the piece seems surprised that anyone might know the hymn. Let alone that they would sing along. Cicely Tyson (who, by the way, won a Tony Award last night for best actress) said she hadn't actually noticed people singing. Which may be evidence of just how in character she is. Or it may be evidence that she didn't find it particularly remarkable.

A Trip to Bountiful was originally written for a white cast. Foote added the hymn when he wrote the screenplay for the 1985 movie based on the play. Because the hymn was so commonly sung in both black and white churches, it was easily used when black casts started performing the play.

Which brings us to one of the most interesting features of the play. It's not about race. Now perhaps this seems obvious since the play was written for a white cast and was only later taken on by black ones. The play seems historically accurate--there are "colored only" signs in the bus station, for instance--but nothing is actually said about race. Perhaps it is the segregationist backdrop that makes this seem plausible. For the most part, blacks and whites didn't need to interact socially. And so there was little occasion in the play for the family to deal with whites.

Foote's daughter, who is the producer, apparently felt no need to change her father's words in order to make the play more of a specifically black play. And her father, who died recently, didn't add or subtract for these purposes either. Which is rather refreshing. The themes of the play--the role of urbanization in changing American families, the longing we have to understand our youth as we get closer to death, the things a hen-pecked husband has to do to keep the peace, the difficulty of living with one's in-laws--are universal ones. And every once in a while it's nice to remember that there are universal human stories and specifically American ones that speak to all of us.

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