Stay Prayed Up Durham premiere | Saturday, May 7, 4 p.m., $15 | The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Sometimes an outside presence can help uplift the remarkable nature of something deeply ingrained in ordinary life. Stay Prayed Up—a gospel documentary that premiered to critical acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival and DOC NYC—offers a fresh way of looking at what has always been a fixture of Black Eastern North Carolina communities and beyond.
Triangle-based documentary film directors D.L. Anderson and Matt Durning have a knack for excavating the extraordinary simply by naming it. The project spawned from Triangle-based musician Phil Cook’s magnetic pull toward gospel music that resulted in a friendship with Lena Mae Perry, the 83-year-old matriarch at the helm of legendary gospel group The Branchettes.
For Perry—best known in her close-knit Johnston County worship community as some variation of “Mother Perry,” “Ma,” or “Mom”—gospel music has been a constant for as long as she can remember. And for the last 50 years, Perry has helmed the performance group named for her home church, Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church, in Newton Grove.
“It really makes me feel good when I come up in this driveway because this is my stomping ground,” Perry says. Her grandmother and aunt were members of this church when she was young. Perry, her sister, and her brother were known in the church community from a young age as “The Bennett Three.”
“We pop up, go down there to the front of the church, and we would start singing,” Perry says. “They would just be, you know, clapping their hands and some singing along with us. And I heard my grandma say, ‘Tear it all to pieces!’”
Stay Prayed Up is a poignant reminder that roots can tighten their grip as branches reach out for new generations. And to honor North Carolina’s musical heritage, you must pay special deference to the depths from which those traditions bloom.
What began as a “simple vision,” Cook says, transformed into a preservation project to showcase the regional tradition of spiritual music, transferring every bit of soul onto the screen. As a producer and multitalented musician, he considered what he could offer Perry as a token of his admiration and care for her and her musical ministry.
“It’s a staple and goal of a gospel group to put out a live record and get the spirit in the room,” Cook says. “I had enough resources to pull together the band and wrote a grant for the actual recording of the thing. And that is where D.L. and Matt came on board.”
The project brought another career milestone for Cook: When considering the recording and release process, he wondered, “Who is going to put this out?” He answered his question with a new record label called Spiritual Helpline. (“I’ve never started a label before,” he laughs. “So there was so much learning involved.”)
The project, on a fundamental level, was one of relationship building. The team worked to build trust not only within the Perry family but also with the church congregation, deacons, and the bishop. The question of who should tell this story, and how, remained at the forefront of their minds from inception to final edits.
“The distinction is that I’m in the service of telling Black stories and not telling them myself,” Anderson says. “No one should get paid more than Mother Perry. Typically, in journalistic circles, that’s frowned upon. But this is a documentary film about a person’s life and their place, so Mother Perry has a 50 percent stake in any profits.”
While editing the film, Anderson and Durning wielded a careful 2:1 ratio of “hearing from the Black women of the church and Johnston County twice as much as we’re hearing from Phil.”
“A resounding central tenet of the film is the strength to carry on and to be in practice, as a community leader as a church mother, and as someone devoted to ministry,” Anderson says.
With deep reverence and real relationships, the story of Mother Perry and The Branchettes as they recorded their hallmark live album was brought to life over the course of three years. Stay Prayed Up, at a 73-minute run time, is the result of these efforts.
Mikel Barton, Phil Cook, Lena C. Williams, and Leslie Raymond served as the producers—each offering critical perspectives to a communal uplift. As the pandemic played out across the world, the team’s initially broad vision shrank into the confines of their tight-knit, COVID-19-cautious group.
“I think that focused the film in a powerful way because most of the scenes were just Mom on her own or with Wilbur, and it was more intimate than it would have been if we had the whole world available to us,” Durning says.
Secondary to the primary plot of the life and musical works of Mother Perry and The Branchettes is the story of three transplants who gravitated toward a niche music tradition in an adopted home state chock-full of folklore. It was North Carolina’s rich musical heritage that drew Durning and Cook to the region, and it was the Hillsborough-based nonprofit the Music Maker Foundation that introduced them to community musicians like Perry.
Before arriving in Durham, Durning had a copy of the Music Maker Foundation book full of Tim Duffy’s photos and biographies of the artists who—like his own musical background—were steeped in roots and blues music.
“For me, that was really special to be able to so intimately connect my own interest in music with a proper project that I have something I could offer back to that community,” says Durning.
Cook originally arrived in North Carolina from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
“The world felt so far away for me when I was a kid, the music I loved was so far,” Cook says. “As a result I had probably developed some really romantic notions about the outside world. Now I understand that I’m destined divinely to be in this place where I could strip away those romantic notions and replace them with real relationships.”
As Mother Perry explains in the film, the gospel tradition is an inherent counter to the violent history of racism that has ruled the Southeast.
“It had three great big K’s: K-K-K,” Perry says, remembering a sign on Highway 70 toward Smithfield. “It was a sense of fear. There were some Klansmen in our community. Some families had said they was afraid to go outside. Somebody said they gonna come to their house. We couldn’t do that much about it. All we could do was pray.”
On one occasion, while crowding into the pulpit for rehearsal, Cook saw a plug with a Radio Shack security camera, its counterpart pointed outside the front doors.
“As I unplugged it, I realized it was—in the wake of Charleston—the only piece of security this pastor would have, just a few seconds’ heads-up,” he says. The instance highlighted the gaping distance between Cook and the film’s subjects.
“That is nothing I’ve ever had to deal with,” he says. “It was very humbling. I went from being really super stoked to just being stirred up.”
Part of the strength of this story, perhaps, is the lens through which these transplants admire the soul of the state.
Reflecting on a time when another person has brought something seemingly mundane into his cognition, Cook references the first snow of his sophomore year of college at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He was walking across a bridge, which he describes as the “coldest place in Wisconsin,” when he ran into a Nicaraguan exchange student.
“She had on her brand-new first-ever-owned winter coat, hat, and mittens,” Cook says. “The wind chill was like -18, so everyone is holding their ears like they’re getting yelled at. And this student was like, ‘It’s so beautiful.’ She just couldn’t get over it. And at that moment, I was like, ‘Wow, it really is.’”
“I think my relationship with Mother Perry was like my first snowfall,” he continues. “Understanding how someone’s daily life has so much beauty that they cultivated just endeared me to her right away. I felt the power of what she was doing on a daily basis. I saw how wide her influence spans over the years and how many seeds she’s planted.”
More than a witness, Anderson experienced Perry’s spiritual strength when he was handed a devastating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in the fall of 2020. His eight-month journey through chemotherapy paralleled the editing process.
“It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through, but I was absolutely lifted and carried through by everyone on this team and found such strength,” Anderson says. “This film, rather than being like this burden was such a central point of light and love.”
“You don’t need to be a practicing devout Christian to understand the power of prayer,” he continues. “As Mother Perry says, prayer changes things. And she’s gonna stay prayed up. It’s such a wonderful time to be offering that to people as we try to figure out how to be around each other again because we’re facing tumult, division, and animosity.”
Raised in a Congregationalist church in Massachusetts, Durning lost interest in faith by eighth grade. In getting to know Perry, he realized the varying definitions of faith.
“For me, it was about connecting faith with gratitude,” he says. The process, compounded with Anderson’s diagnosis and Wilbur’s declining health, he says was “heavy but also incredibly therapeutic.”
“Mother Perry talks about music as medicine, using her songs to heal,” he continues. “And this moment of bringing the right people together at the right time where there was so much trust built—during the pandemic when we were all kind of reevaluating priorities in our lives and relationships—became a powerful, cathartic thing. Listening to Mother Perry was affirming every day for those three years. In most film projects, you’re not that lucky.”
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