By Roger Lovette
If you were to travel to New York and move down Broadway to 43rd Street you would find the Stephen Sondeim Theater. If you bought a ticket and found your seat you would be in for a treat.
The curtain rises on “The Trip to Bountiful,” the story of an old woman who wanted to make just one last trip to her old home place in Bountiful, Texas. Her family thought her mind was about gone and they did not want her to make the trip. But she went anyway.
Cicely Tyson plays the 80-year-old woman waiting to catch her bus. With the dignity of all her years she stood and began to sing the old gospel song, “Blessed Assurance.” At that moment someone in the darkness of the audience began to sing. And then the singing moved across the aisles until many of those in the theater were singing along with Ms. Tyson.
The New York Times reported that this was not in the script. They wrote that this phenomenon was peculiar — because most Broadway experiences do not include audience participation. The author of the Times article called the song unheard of — and something out of the ordinary.
But anyone who has been in an evangelical church — white or black — would know this song. Why did the audience sing, night after night: “This is my story, this is my song?” I do not really know, except out there in the darkness the song must have touched a great many people: some divorcee, someone facing a bad lab report, someone contemplating suicide.
Across the aisle there might have been someone depressed. They sang because they had lost their jobs or their faith or someone they loved dearly. And there in the darkness they reached out and touched something that took them in and carried them along.
I thought about that experience as I waded through the sad griefs of the support group I lead. The story brought to mind the friend who lost a daughter unexpectedly much too soon, the friend who said goodbye to her aging mother and those young parents losing their first-born.
I remembered those neighbors of ours lost in that terrible plane crash in Alaska. I thought of much of the sadness out there in the darkness. Nineteen firefighters in the prime of their lives are no more. The victims of the Boston Marathon — not to speak of our boys and girls that still come home in flag-draped boxes. We all know that the darkness is real and difficult.
All of us need something powerful to hang on to either in our own darkness or helping a friend go through their hard time. We long to get in touch with the human chord that might just make us remember again that we really are all the same. The unrelenting forces out there try to drive a wedge between us and them — but we know better.
Most of those sitting in that theater were touched by something primal and real. That’s why they sang in the darkness. For just a few hours they were one – fellow strugglers — all on a hard journey.
Toward the end of his life Wallace Stegner wrote a novel called Crossing to Safety. It told the story of an old couple who had been married for many years. They both had physical problems and found it hard to get around. They had been through the ups and downs that life brings to most couples. They were still together, she on her walker and he on his cane. One of the characters observed: “None of us can cross the choppy waters to safety alone — someone has to help us.”
An old hymn may help many of us. Reaching out to others sometimes does the trick. But from time to time we all need a reminder that the human spirit is resilient.
Those of us that are acquainted with the darkness really can make it across the choppy waters. All the grievers who move away from the cemetery can learn that the new-fresh mound is not the end though it seems like it.
Whatever life brings — and often it is hellish — the human spirit can get up from the most distressing of things and move on. Not alone but with others and with a power that is unseen but very real.
There really is a Blessed Assurance. The darkness is not the end. And so when the play is over and the lights in the theater come up — people will file out and go their separate ways. I hope they take with them the words of the old song:
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of raptures now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above,
Echoes of mercy whispers of love.
I hope they can make it, and so can we all.