James de Jongh, a scholar and playwright best known for fashioning oral histories left by formerly enslaved people in the 1930s into “Do Lord Remember Me,” a 1978 stage work that painted an unflinching picture of the human cost of slavery, died on May 5 in the Bronx. He was 80.
Robert deJongh Jr., a nephew, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
Professor de Jongh was a longtime member of the English department faculty at City College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he specialized in African American literature and the literatures of the African diaspora. But briefly in his early career he had been an actor, and he continued to maintain an interest in the theater. In 1975, together with Carles Cleveland, he wrote his first play — “Hail Hail the Gangs!” — about a Black teenager who joins a Harlem gang.
“I wanted to go in a completely different direction for the second play,” he told the public-access cable channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network in a recent interview.
He was drawn to a book called “The Negro in Virginia,” a collection of interviews with formerly enslaved people started by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal, and completed in 1940 by the Virginia Writers’ Project. At first, he said, his idea was to construct a fictional story using that material as background, but as he delved further into archives of interviews at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere, his thinking changed.
“Many of them were quite eloquent, were quite moving, were quite touching, and some of them were in, really, the voices of the people themselves,” he said. “In other words, the interviewers had actually recorded word for word, rather than simply summarizing the content of what they said. And those words were striking.”
He realized that he could create a play made primarily of the recollections of the men and women who had experienced slavery firsthand, augmented by the words of Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, and by some gospel and work songs. The result was “Do Lord Remember Me,” which premiered in 1978 at the New Federal Theater on East Third Street in Manhattan, with a cast that included Frances Foster, a leading actress of the day.
“The play, strongly felt and single-minded, has an impact far greater than one would receive from reading historical documents,” Mel Gussow wrote in his review for The New York Times. “The seven actors, portraying slave owners as well as slaves, transport us, showing us the auction block in our nation’s past — when people were a commodity for speculation — linking arms and embracing a collective consciousness.”
A revised version was staged in 1982 at the American Place Theater in Midtown, with a cast that included Ebony Jo-Ann and Glynn Turman. In a fresh review, Mr. Gussow called it “a moving evocation of shared servitude.”
The play, which has been restaged a number of times over the decades, has dashes of humor and a theme of triumphing over adversity. But it is also blunt in its language and its depiction of the cruelties of slavery, the kind of historical realism that is being erased from educational curriculums in some schools and libraries today. In one scene, a woman shares the back story of her facial disfigurement: As a child, she was punished for taking a peppermint stick by having her head placed beneath the rocker of a rocking chair and crushed.
In the interview with Manhattan Neighborhood Network, Professor de Jongh said that although he was not a particularly religious man, he saw creating the play as a sort of calling.
“Somehow, I felt I had a task,” he said, “and the task had found me.”
James Laurence de Jongh was born on Sept. 23, 1942, in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His father, Percy, was the commissioner of finance for the government of the Virgin Islands, and his mother, Mavis E. (Bentlage) de Jongh, was an assistant director for the U.S. Customs Service and ran a poultry farm and plant store.
Professor de Jongh attended Saints Peter & Paul Catholic School on St. Thomas and then Williams College in Massachusetts, where he appeared in theatrical productions and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. He received a master’s degree from Yale in 1967 and a Ph.D. from New York University in 1983.
Professor de Jongh continued to act for a time after his days at Williams College, but teaching was his vocation beginning in 1969, when he spent a year as an instructor at Rutgers University. The next year he joined the CUNY faculty; he remained there for decades and added the Graduate Center to his portfolio in 1990. He took emeritus status in 2011.
Professor de Jongh wrote numerous academic articles on Black theater, the art scene in Harlem and related subjects, and in 1990, he published a scholarly book, “Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination.” He also served on the board of the New Federal Theater, whose current artistic director, Elizabeth Van Dyke, called him “a quiet, gracious powerhouse.”
Professor de Jongh, who lived in the Bronx, leaves no immediate survivors.
The 1982 production of “Do Lord Remember Me” was also presented to inmates at Rikers Island — according to news accounts, it was the first complete professional production staged at the prison. Professor de Jongh attended and found the inmates more boisterous than traditional theatergoers.
“There was an element of risk in the entire situation,” he told The Times that year. “The audience reacted with anger as well as humor. It was not just a play about remembering — their own freedom was circumscribed.”