A Story of the Human Heart
By Tazewell Thompson
Director, Lost in the Stars
When I first encountered the novel Cry, the Beloved Country in high school, the searing, emotional force of the book impacted me in very hard, personal, and meaningful ways. The world outside and within my schoolroom window was filled with rage and outrage. It was the height of the tumultuous civil rights movement. I identified very closely with the brutal mistreatment of South African blacks in the novel, as day after day I read about the beatings and horrific attacks, the bombings, the unjustified incarceration of my people, the humiliation of children being denied the schools of their choice, and the assassinations of the ordinary and the extraordinary martyrs. Today I revisit Alan Paton’s novel and the opera it inspired with not so much cleansed eyes and an open heart of forgiveness and understanding — although there is that — but with a deeper sense of how these works magnify how far we, as a race of ever hopeful people, have come. In the years since these works were written, we have seen the election of a black president, the Voting Rights Act, women’s liberation, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the dissolution of apartheid, and the legalization of gay marriage. The book and the opera have become more significant to me as great testaments of the power of art and its ability to confront injustice.
As a young actor I appeared with the New Day Repertory Company as the Narrator in a production of Cry, the Beloved Country at Trinity Church. The memory stays vivid. The words I spoke from the book echo in my memory, as they did from the altar, throughout the bronze, marble, wood and stone interior:
Cry, the beloved country! Cry, the lost son, the lost tribe.
The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh.
These are the valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children.
In 2011 I was asked to take the reins of a co-production of Weill and Anderson’s masterwork for Cape Town Opera and The Glimmerglass Festival. Imagine directing Lost in the Stars in the place and setting that inspired it! Many members of the company, if not all, had experienced, first-hand, the cruelties of the apartheid system. It was truly transporting to hear the glorious voices of South Africans singing Weill’s eclectic score and to guide and witness their intimate knowingness of the book scenes. There was a special sensibility of working with Cape Town citizens and the learning curve of being immediately immersed in their culture. What an extraordinary opportunity, as an American black man, to direct Lost in the Stars with these phenomenal performers. While I had much to share as I directed them in both book and song scenes, they had so much more to teach me.
Though Lost in the Stars wrestles poignantly with issues of biblical dimensions — family, faith, and redemption — it is in essence a simple story: one of heartbreak and intolerance as well as truth, reconciliation, compassion and, finally, moral transformation. It is especially a story of fathers and sons and their pursuit of each other and a place called home — a safe space where love can navigate fear and anger and rejection; a space to retreat from a world that fears rather than loves you because you are black; a space — some small piece of God’s green earth to walk upright and till and harness — to give life, sustenance, and fruitful rewards to you and yours; a space where love resides and has no room for hatred and fear and the darkness of the night.
Washington National Opera’s Lost in Stars runs February 12 – 20 in the Eisenhower Theater. For more information and tickets, click here.