Slavery chronicles make for theater of rare potency; Do Lord Remember Me; Play by James de Jongh. Directed by Regge Life.
New York — Seldom does a stage work stir the emotions as they are stirred - and uplifted - by the brief chronicles of slavery being dramatically presented at the American Place Theater. Playwright James de Jongh has gone to the extensive interviews with former slaves conducted by black members of the Federal Writers' Project in 1935 and compiled them into a memory play.
''Do Lord Remember Me,'' Mr. de Jongh's creative arrangement of this authenic material, is illuminatingly performed under Regge Life's direction. The result is a theatrical event of rare distinction and achievement.
Mr. de Jongh draws mostly on material collected in Virginia. His use of these rich recitals recaptures the day-to-day ordeal of slavery, while making clear the resilience and spiritual fortitude that enabled its victims to endure. The playwright has insured authenticity by using the speakers' words verbatim. The verisimilitude of ''Do Lord Remember Me'' as a stage work exists in the inspired performance by the cast of five: Frances Foster, Ebony Jo-Ann, Lou Myers, Charles H. Patterson, and Glynn Turman. Mr. Turman's roles include the doomed Nat Turner and a Union Army volunteer.
''Do Lord Remember Me'' opens with a slave auction and climaxes with a freedom celebration, following the Civil War the slaves themselves helped to win. In between, they recall exeriences from a life of bondage - of working in the field from dawn to dusk, of how they were fed and often underfed, of discipline enforced by the lash, and of runaways who sometimes survived.
In several of the play's effectively comic recitals, they confide slave superstition and reveal how ''mastah'' could be fooled. They remember Sunday services in an all-black church, where the white pastor preached the virtues of obedience, but refused to say whether they would be free in heaven. They tell of slave marriages and of women slaves who bore children to their owners as well as to their husbands. (''Your children belonged to everybody but you.'') They sing unaccompanied work songs and spirituals.
With all of its dark history, ''Do Lord Remember Me'' is not a bitter play. Mr. de Jongh has written neither a diatribe nor an indictment. Instead, he has provided a backward look at how the ancestors of today's black Americans survived and even triumphed. As presented at the American Place, these fragments from the lives of downtrodden people become a tribute to the human spirit.
Julie Taymor's set design, with its simple porchlike elevation, responds to the directness of the excerpts, just as Sandra L. Ross's lighting responds to their shifting moods. The costumes are by Judy Dearing.
''Do Lord Remember Me'' achieves the theatrical ideal of enlightening as it entertains. Scheduled for only three weeks, the production deserves to run indefinitely.