Memory, Immigration, Forgiveness, and Nat King Cole in A.C.T.'s Let There Be Love

Actor Carl Lumbly says Let There Be Love, which he stars in at A.C.T. with Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Greta Wohlrabe, exceeded his expectations. And his expectations were high.

“It’s just a joy to work on. It’s an affecting play that touches on so many different things,” Lumbly said. “It’s not sentimental – it’s just real, and it allows everyone to remain in the position they’re in and still be affected by the position of others.”

In the play, Lumbly, known for his roles on TV’s Cagney and Lacey, and Alias, movies such as Men of Honor, and Everybody’s All American, and a star on Bay Area stages, plays Alfred, an immigrant from Grenada, who has struggled to make a living in London. Because of health problems, his daughter, the one who’s still talking to him (barely), gets him a Polish caretaker, Maria.

Like Lumbly, the British award-winning playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, has an impressive background, as an actor singer, broadcaster, and artistic director. After seeing an art exhibition titled The West Indian Front Room: Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes, Kwei-Armah, whose parents came from Grenada, says he was moved to write Let There Be Love.

In the play, Alfred, who doesn’t have much good to say about anything or anyone, deeply loves the gramophone in his front room, which he’s named Lily. When he plays a record, his whole demeanor totally changes. Lumbly, whose parents immigrated to Minnesota from Jamaica, says his family also had a gramophone. Music was very important in the house, and his father particularly loved ska, country-and-western, and calypso. Like Alfred, Lumbly loves jazz and Nat King Cole, who he finds inspiring.

“He was like an ambassador – he would go to Spain and learn to sing songs in Spanish and do the same thing in Germany,” he said. “He was one of the finest singer and interpreters of song we’ve ever known. He sang with such joy and generosity. Something about his voice accepts everyone right where they are.”

Let There Be Love has a different take on immigration than we ordinarily see with Alfred resentful of East Indians and Eastern Europeans who he sees as taking the available jobs.

“Alfred is pretty bitter,” Lumbly said. “He doesn’t expect anything but the worst, and he doesn’t see anything but the worst. There’s one scene where he’s watching the news and he says, ‘Bloody foreigners.’ He’s literally talking about himself.”

But facilitated by music, he is able to make a connection with Maria. When she puts on Madonna, Alfred, instead of rebelling, enjoys “Like a Virgin.”

That makes sense to Lumbly, who says, although he would deny it to his son, he appreciates Katy Perry.

“We’re such accidental beings,” he said. “You have these influences in your life that you don’t know where they come from.”

While the play deals with immigration, family relations, and death with dignity, it’s really about – as the title says – love. Or so Lumbly thinks.

“It’s like an incantation: ‘Let there be love,’” he said. “Nationalism and xenophobia and racism and all the ‘isms’ – that’s all artificial in a way. The territory bounded by heart we’re all familiar with. When love is made manifest, then hearts can connect.”

Let There Be Love, through May 3 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary, 749.2228.. Tickets $20-$105.  

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