Voices of Zion
Lloyd Mallory as Charles Turner and Ayana Ogunsunlade as Hannah Pope in Alliance for New Music-Theatre's Voices of Zion; Credit: Erika Nizborski

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Before gentrification and discriminatory public housing policies plagued Georgetown, before the neighborhood became synonymous with White wealth, waterfront picnics along the C&O Canal, and cupcake tours, before developers tried to dig up bodies at Black cemeteries and build more townhouses in their place, Black Georgetown buzzed with resistance. 

Georgetown, a historically Black tobacco and shipping port, once carried the weight of freed slaves’ worries and dreams as a part of the Underground Railroad. The neighborhood is also the site of the country’s oldest African American cemeteries and D.C.’s oldest African American congregation; it was the first historical district in the District, and home to many free, freed, and enslaved Black people. Its roots are kind of a big deal. 

In Voices of Zion: The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project, a theatrical performance combining opera, musical, and church gospel by Alliance for New Music-Theatre, artistic director Susan Galbraith challenges viewers to “dig deeper” to uncover the lives of Washingtonian ancestors. As its title suggests, the work is a collaboration with Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park to educate and fundraise for efforts to preserve these oldest African-American cemeteries in D.C.

The production itself moves from the Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society cemeteries to the United Dumbarton United Methodist Church based on weather. It makes full use of the environment, incorporating stage movement and tweaking characters’ lines to complement either of its historical settings. Dramaturg and executive director of the Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society cemeteries, Lisa Fager, who’s leading efforts to commemorate and preserve the historic cemeteries from both natural and real estate threats, lends her experience to ensure the stories are true to life and death. 

The production pulls Georgetown’s Black roots up to expose love, loss, and freedom through the physical and spiritual journey of well-known Georgetown couple Alfred Pope (a dynamic Djob Lyons) and Hannah Pope (vibrant soprano Ayana Ogunsunlade). But they’re not the sole historical figures lending their vibrato and presence to the work, which also features additional strong characters who help the pair find their place. 

Again, antecedents are crucial to understanding how far the Popes go: Before Alfred turned his job as a scavenger into savings that eventually led him to owning five single-family homes with five tenements in Georgetown, before he testified in front of Congress over whether Georgetown and Washington City should merge, before he and Hannah became so active in the public affairs and development of their community, Alfred was a lost soul. 

The afters are just as important: Alfred was one of 77 slaves to embark on The Pearl, in what was the largest recorded (unsuccessful) nonviolent escape attempt by enslaved people in the nation. 

When the operatic musical begins, Alfred has just been forced to return to slavery under South Carolina Congressman John Carter. When he and Hannah are freed following Carter’s death, Alfred doesn’t quite know how to be free. 

Unless you’re familiar enough with D.C. Black history to already be in the weeds (or roots), these befores and afters escape you until the end-of-show community conversation. You know only that Alfred longs for a sense of personhood and home, and that a kneeling, sobbing Hannah hangs on to the hope of finding her deceased children. Hannah’s arias skip atop imagined tombstones as she laments her children’s death. 

On a stormy Friday night at one of the oldest churches in the District, Georgetown’s Dumbarton United Methodist, with a rainfall that sounds scripted, the production takes you to this quintessential moment: Alfred and Hannah, in despair and embracing at the Mount Zion Cemeteries, at the start of their quest to reckon with who they are as newly freed people. 

Their guides to find freedom and identity have spunk. Mary Beckett (Sheri Jackson) and Mary Billings (Cara Schaefer) deal with the built-in tension of Billings, a White woman savior figure, suddenly appearing in a Black-only space. Through Billings, we glimpse an abolitionist and educator’s path to finding acceptance from the community where she ultimately teaches Black children in her home. Their song voices push themes of empowerment (“Isn’t My Money Good as Any Man’s?” is salient with the trio of Jackson, Schaefer, and the cool Roz White playing Mary Burrell). 

Charles Turner (Dr. Lloyd Mallory), once known as “The Black Mayor of Georgetown,” is a calming force with a gift for calling people to congregate. He challenges Alfred’s decision to stay in the church balcony, where Black people were expected to sit in the antebellum era, rather than sit on the ground-floor pews. And he gathers the community to sing and chant of freedom—inherent acts of resistance—throughout the musical work and into the violet twilight of the closing scene.

The Female Union Band Society represents a group of free Black women who, in 1842, pledged to support each other “in sickness and in death.” Their plot of land formed part of Mount Zion Cemetery. In Voices of Zion, the Female Union Band Society chorus (Bernie Alston, Pamela Carter-Coleman, Ayanna Hardy, Yvette Spears, Patrice Underwood, and Jacquelyn Vaughan) are a sighing, stomping, supportive bunch. They bring flair, hype, and voice to heighten community songs and soften the Popes’ dark moments. 

Burrell is not just one of Hannah and Alfred’s trusted guides but ours, too: Her explanatory notes of historic figures, albeit too didactic for some, are helpful nonetheless. Burrell lights up the shadows in the reimagined church theater. Her diction, clear as church bells, constantly reminds you of her last name’s spelling (and misspelling). This running joke sheds light, too, on the erasure of Black residents that still plagues D.C.’s oldest Black cemetery. Her “she’s all right”—referring to Billings—paves a path to the White woman’s acceptance. Burrell’s voice is a booming character of its own (White’s motivational speaker work might have something to do with that). 

So, too, are the songs. Composed by college student (and organist at Mount Zion United Methodist Church), Ronald Walton III, with lyrics by Jarrod Lee, and directed by the iconic cross-genre composer, arranger, and musician Evelyn Simpson Curenton, the musical arrangements string together memory and loss as major motifs. For Galbraith, who tells City Paper via email that, as early as the 1830s, “colored people comprised as much as 40% of the community, a goodly proportion were free or freed and hell bent on freeing others,” the memory of Black Georgetown is most honestly conveyed through the music. The Dumbarton Choir’s accompaniment certainly helps. 

The music (and wardrobe by Monique McKenzie) transports you to the church and Mount Zion cemetery vault that doubles as an Underground Railroad hiding spot; it also recreates a love story that’s resistant to a single-plane retelling of struggle. “How Many?” is Jackson’s haunting ode to Black residents who have and will fall before they’re freed from oppression. A unique rendition of “Amazing Grace” strikes the final tone, the homecoming of a once-lost, now-found Alfred, after an epiphany, where he, too, will “fight for Zion.”  

“Until all of us are freed, we none of us is freed,” Turner says to the congregation both on stage and off, Georgetown locals and not, lost and seeking. 

Voices of Zion: The Black Georgetown Cemeteries Project, directed by Thomas W. Jones II with musical direction by Evelyn Simpson Curenton and artistic direction by Susan Galbraith, runs Fridays and Saturdays through May 21 at Mount Zion Cemetery, weather permitting. The final performance takes place on Memorial Day, May 30. In the case of inclement weather, performances will be at Dumbarton United Methodist Church. newmusictheatre.org. $35.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional details on the collaboration between Alliance for New Music-Theatre and the Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park.