How Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned an enslaved man’s narrative into an opera, ‘The Lost’ (Lincoln Center): How to use and enjoy artistry of the people to change a world
At the age of three, Joseph Smith wrote out an inventory of his household. “My little household furniture, a little bed, a little chest, a little table, chairs, and an old-fashioned chair,” he wrote in his diary for January 1827.
All of this furniture would have been made in the USA. The Smiths were traveling to Missouri with their slaves.
They stayed for a relatively short two-month period. Then, in the middle of December 1829, Joseph Smith died.
In a posthumous review of his journal, we read about a time when Joseph and his sons lived with a new master, Peter Whitmer, who, as a businessman, had found the right business opportunity.
As Smith’s brother Hyrum wrote, he “had brought up two little boys; a boy and a girl. We called the boy Peter; he is the oldest in the family.”
The story of how Peter Whitmer and “The Lost” come together in time and on stage is one of the most important stories in American theater. It was only in the 1960s, with the help of the work of scholars, playwright Michael Abels and singer, actress and composer Rhiannon Giddens, that this story began to be explored in serious, new terms.
In a few short decades, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned a story of slavery into an opera, “The Lost” — a story of slavery that many people still are not aware of.
“The Lost” was first staged in 2010 at the Lincoln Center. In that production, Giddens played Harriet Jacobs, and Abels played George Washington Parke Custis, the man who had taken his family from Virginia in 1762 and sold them for slavery to settle in Pennsylvania.
Abels and G