NEW YORK—I haven’t seen Kinky Boots, the hottest show on Broadway, but I would guess that its Broadway neighbor Trip to Bountiful is its opposite in style and substance.
Bountiful lacks sparkly dance numbers and Cyndi Lauper selections (“Sex Is in the Heel” is one Kinky Boots song), but it’s playing sold-out shows. Set in Houston in the late 1940s, the play by Horton Foote (who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird) tells the story of one household confronting very normal crises: fights about where someone left something in the house, nervousness about asking for a raise, and a couple’s sorrow about not having children.
The elderly Mrs. Watts (Cicely Tyson) longs to return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, before she dies, against the wishes of her son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his shrewish wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). They all live on top of each other in a small apartment where Jessie Mae is constantly complaining about what her mother-in-law’s hymn singing does to her nerves.
Watts, browbeaten in the Houston apartment, escapes. Waiting at a station for a bus to Bountiful, she elicits a moment that makes this Broadway play unlike any other Broadway play: When Watts bursts into the old Fanny Crosby hymn “Blessed Assurance,” the audience joins her—softly at first and without any prompts.
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” Watts sings. “O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.”
As the audience finishes, Tyson turns to another hymn, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” The audience joins in on that one too, clapping in delight at the end. The 79-year-old Tyson deservedly won this year’s Best Actress Tony for the role. She is poetic and captivating.
This spontaneous audience choir has been happening every night, in every performance. It’s not normal Manhattan audience behavior: When The New York Times first noticed the singing, it published a story about it on the front page. The audience—largely African-American the night I attended–probably isn’t made up of typical New Yorkers. Two African-American ladies next to me had traveled from Houston, and they said many of their friends had also come to New York to see it before them.
I wondered during the performance how a show like this made it to Broadway: For one, its pace is slow and reflective. The play asks questions about urban migration and the importance of a birthplace. Ludie and Jessie Mae are exhausted and tense in the city, even though Ludie has a good job. “Bountiful was full of poor people but we got along,” Watts says. Later, she tells Ludie, “To stay with the land would’ve been better.” When she returns to a deserted Bountiful, she hears the sound of birds she knows, smells the Gulf, and says she feels her “dignity” returning.
More surprising for a Broadway show: Watts’ Christian faith is a theme throughout. Once Watts makes it onto a bus to Bountiful, she finds herself next to a young woman, Thelma (Condola Rashad), whose husband has just left to serve in the Korean War. Thelma talks about how she misses her husband. Watts begins reciting Psalm 91 by heart to Thelma, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” Thelma breaks down in tears.
“You like hymns?” Watts asks Thelma. “Jessie Mae says they’ve gone out of style.” Maybe not yet.