From this morning’s New York Times:
Not long after the curtain rises on the second act of “The Trip to Bountiful,” the Broadway revival of the Horton Foote play at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, something unusual happens.Cicely Tyson, as Mrs. Carrie Watts, sits on a bus station bench in a small Texas town. She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies.
Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”
From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.
“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”
After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”
Thrilling but unexpected. Under normal circumstances the Broadway experience does not include audience participation, even when catchy songs from classic musicals are being performed.
The “Blessed Assurance” phenomenon is peculiar, perhaps even unheard-of, but the hymn itself is something out of the ordinary.
“It is almost as ubiquitous as ‘Amazing Grace,’ ” said Anthony Heilbut, author of “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.” “It’s one of those low-church Protestant hymns central to fundamentalist worship, black and white.” He cited classic versions recorded by greats like Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Albertina Walker and Marion Williams. Country singers like Alan Jackson and Randy Travis have recorded the song.
Read more and catch a bit of the hymn at the link. Meantime, Alan Jackson’s version is below.