By LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
AUGUST 16, 2016
Part of me wondered where everyone was. Late on Saturday night, at the fifth production of what would be a dozen-show dive into the New York International Fringe Festival, I had finally found something rather glorious — but the house looked more empty than not. It hardly seemed right.
Honestly, though? I’d almost stayed away, too. A gorgeous, rafter-raising gospel musical, “Mother Emanuel” (through Aug. 25 at the SoHo Playhouse) sounds as if it would be depressing at best, inspired as it is by the shooting that killed nine people last year at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Instead, it’s a defiantly vibrant celebration of the lives of those who died, and an excellent piece of documentary theater.
Stumbling across a treasure like that is one of the joys of Fringe-going, but oh, how I longed for some buzz to follow as I chose from the nearly 200 shows on offer at this year’s FringeNYC. Particularly in the opening days of the festival (the schedule is at fringenyc.org), there’s not a lot to go on.
Conceived and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and written by Mr. Maharaj, Adam Mace and Christian Lee Branch, this show is, of course, partly about gun violence, but it keeps the focus on the fallen, helping us understand who and what was lost. In a terrific cast of four, Mr. Branch and Nicole Stacie stand out with astonishing vocals.
By AMELIA BIENSTOCK
AUGUST 17, 2016
***** [five stars]
This powerful piece by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Adam Mace and Christian Lee Branch pays tribute to the nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, ages 26 to 87, who were killed in a gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina. Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson: Mother Emanuelhonors their memories by bringing them to life. In flashbacks that reveal their personal histories, the play helps us get to know and love these people as more than names briskly scanned in a news story. The sterling ensemble includes the comical Branch and the charismatic Marquis D. Gibson; Lauren Shaye provides dynamic character acting, and Nicole Stacie has vocal cords of steel. (Jaws drop when she belts a note.) Though appropriately weighty, the play doesn’t forget to entertain, and the audience is even encouraged to join the cast in song. Such moments of joy make the tragedy even harder to accept.
By AILEEN LAMBERT
AUGUST 14, 2016
BOTTOM LINE: Mother Emanuel is a moving and powerful piece of documentary theatre, honoring the victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church through gospel music.
The creators of Mother Emanuel must have been busy for the past year, because their play is centered around an event that took place just over a year ago: the racially charged mass shooting at a Charleston church on June 17, 2015. The play alternates between scripted scenes and gospel singing, with the action focused on the bible study group on the evening of the shooting. But this is not a purely mournful performance. This play exposes the pure joy, humor, and sorrow of not only each character, but of the performers themselves.
This is documentary theatre at its finest. Watching the actors morph seamlessly between the Charleston Nine and others—including a fantastic portrayal of President Barack Obama by Marquis Gibson—is supremely satisfying. The actors perform comedic and dramatic scenes with dexterity, providing an emotional roller coaster for the audience. But most impressive yet is the actors’ ability to simply be onstage. Never do they officially play themselves, but at times, they drop the characters and let their own humanity shine through the performance. Never is this more true than when they let go and sing.
Their voices are beyond this world. The Charleston Nine are singing to God, and their voices shoot from the bodies of the actors portraying them. This is a production in which voice and soul transcend character and theatricality. This is not only a play; this is a performance of humanity.
My only critique would be that the structure of alternating gospel songs and book scenes becomes somewhat formulaic and predictable after about 45 minutes; luckily, the structure does shift shortly after this point. Overall, Mother Emanuel is a fantastic play about the joy of life, faith, and community, and how that is stronger than hate.
By DAVID ROBERTS
AUGUST 18, 2016
Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders was 26 years old when he returned to his Father in Heaven. A poet and entrepreneur, he died while reaching to save his Aunt Susie. Just a few hours before his death, his last Instagram post was a meme with a quote from Jackie Robinson. It read, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’” – Charlestonian 2, “Mother Emanuel”
In “Mother Emanuel” there is no mention of twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof who, after spending an hour in a Bible Study with members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, shot nine of those church members and fled the building uttering a racially inflammatory statement over the bodies. In fact, the only reference to this June 17, 2015 massacre is the word ‘shooting.’
Described as “An American Musical Play,” Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Adam Mace, and Christian Lee Branch’s “Mother Emanuel” focuses on the lives of the nine victims of this shooting prior to the massacre – the time each of them found “Grace” and “returned to their Heavenly Father.” This new musical focuses on how each of these nine believers led exemplary lives of faith and commitment that continue to influence others beyond their untimely deaths.
“Mother Emanuel” takes place during the Bible study but includes a series of flashbacks that describe in detail the lives of each of the “nine.” These flashbacks are emotional and honest and give authenticity to each individual. The audience easily connects to these stories through the significant craft of the cast who play not only the lives of the massacred but also the lives those individuals touched and the lives of those who were left behind. These “testimonials” are powerful and life-changing.
Under Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s meticulous direction, Christian Lee Branch, Marquis Gibson, Lauren Shaye, and Nicole Stacie act, sing, and dance their ways into the hearts of the audience. As they depict how the “nine” were fired up by their deep and abiding faith, this remarkable ensemble cast fires up the audience and prepares them for that cathartic moment when, after hearing “The Old Rugged Cross,” there is a blackout and they hear the shots fired that ended those lives of the faithful.
The musical includes eleven songs of faith delivered by the cast with powerful voices that interpret the songs’ lyrics with purity and grace. And the musical does not shy away from depicting the unique experience of the AME church and its distinctive charismatic style of worship and preaching. For some members of the audience, it might be the first time they experienced the depiction of one “slain in the Spirit.”
The spirit of redemptive love pervades “Mother Emanuel” – both the musical and the historic church it celebrates – and reminds the audience of the strength of one community of faith and its insistence on overcoming hate with love. Part revival, part history, part testimonies, “Mother Emanuel” challenges the choices of vengeance and hatred with the ability to lean on “Everlasting Arms.”
By DARRYL REILLY
AUGUST 23, 2016
Billed as “An American Musical Play,” Mother Emanuel is a rousing and thoughtful docudrama about the 2015 shootings at an historic church during a Bible study meeting. Through Gospel numbers, a finely written script and excellent presentation, we learn about who the nine murdered parishioners were.
What could have been a heavy-handed and grim dramatization is here a joyous celebration of lives senselessly lost. The show’s creators have found the right balance of solemnity, entertainment and information.
The dynamic cast is made up of Marquis Gibson, Lauren Shaye, Nicole Stacie and Christian Lee Branch. These four very talented performers all portray numerous characters during this 75-minute work. President Barack Obama is depicted as well.
Included are the nine African-American victims of diverse ages: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.
After an exuberant hour of musical numbers and well-crafted exposition, the shootings occur. This is rendered subtly and powerfully due to the show’s exceptional technical elements.
Except for black metal folding chairs the stage is bare. Working on this minimal scale director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s creates a dazzling visual dimension with his precise and accomplished physical staging and his energetic choreography.
The performers wear formal clothes appropriate for church and later red-hued gowns and colorful scarfs and play tambourines.
Lighting designer Douglas Cox and sound designer Paul Wilt’s excellent efforts both contribute immensely to the sense of time and place.
Mr. Maharaj conceived the show and collaborated on its well-realized script with Adam Mace and Mr. Branch. Branch is also responsible for the striking music direction.
The official name of the church is The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was founded in 1816, and is in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That a young white man bent on starting a race war committed this hate crime was a major news story.
Mother Emanuel theatrically succeeds at recounting this tragedy with its superior performances and inspired production.
By JONATHAN MANDELL
AUGUST 27, 2016
“Mother Emanuel” is an earnest, lively play filled with rousing music that celebrates the lives of the nine people who were shot dead at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. It is a sad story but it’s told in a deeply entertaining way, with the four supremely talented members of the cast singing some dozen gospel songs well enough to explain why so many people still get up on Sunday mornings.
Each of the four actors portrays several characters – not just the members of the Bible study group on the day they were gunned down, but also their family and friends, their students and co-workers, in flashbacks that go back as far as 40 years earlier.
We see Christian Lee Branch — who co-wrote the play with director and choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Adam Mace – as 74-year-old Daniel L. Simmons, telling an Army buddy after serving in Vietnam, and getting a Purple Heart, that he was going to become a preacher (“the family business.”) We also see him as 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who was planning on graduate school and aiming to open up a barber shop.
\We see Lauren Shaye as 59-year-old Myra Thompson in her classroom, teaching James Baldwin to her fidgety students. “Poets like Mr. Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nicki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka used their words not only to express themselves but to speak truths about our society…(about) things that needed to change in our world.” (Langston Hughes is quoted as much as the Bible in “Mother Emanuel.”) Shaye also portrays 87-year-old singer Susie Jackson and 45-year-old Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who was a pastor, speech therapist and track coach. Shaye’s pipes bring down the house.
Nicole Stacie plays six characters, including three of the professional women (49-year-old pastor and college admissions coordinator Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 54-year-old librarian Cynthia Hurd, 70-year-old sexton Ethel Lee Lance) killed that day. With an impressively pliable face, she provides much of the humor in the play.
Marquis D. Gibson portrays the 41-year-old Clementa Pinckey, the pastor of Mother Emanuel and a South Carolina State Senator. Gibson is also President Obama delivering the moving eulogy for the nine.
That such a show as “Mother Emanuel” could hold its own in a festival known for campy hits with silly titles is a testament not just to the power of the show, but to the growing maturity of the New York International Fringe Festival on its 20th anniversary.
By Peter Marks
SEPTMBER 16, 2016
Were it not for the ghastly crimes of a little over a year ago, a musical called “Mother Emanuel” would never have been written.
It was on June 17, 2015, that nine African American members of a Bible study group at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., were systematically shot to death. A young white man was charged with carrying out the massacre. As with so many of these horrific events, the responses to it conformed to a depressingly modern template of nationwide shock, outrage and grief. Gun-control advocates cited the shooting as further evidence of a need for stiffer laws. President Obama traveled to Charleston to eulogize the victims.
A musical, though, is not ordinarily thought of as part of this ritualistic process. So a recent visit to “Mother Emanuel” — a dignified, elegiac remembrance of the victims, laced with spirituals and gospel music, that just wrapped up a run at the off-Broadway SoHo Playhouse — raises a question: Can this show be judged by normal artistic standards? Can an audience assess the merits of such a viscerally charged production, so soon after the horror, with anything like a neutral eye?
A similar thought was provoked a week earlier at a performance of “Come From Away” in Washington. The Broadway-bound, fact-based musical at Ford’s Theatre takes place on and immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, in a Canadian town to which dozens of airliners were diverted after the terrorist attacks, stranding thousands of passengers for days. The community of Gander, Newfoundland, embraced the strangers in ways so extraordinary that songwriters Irene Sankoff and David Hein decided to set the story, based on interviews they recorded in Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, to music.
It’s almost impossible not to choke up while watching “Come From Away.” The musical is cleverly staged by director Christopher Ashley, with a dozen actors playing both the passengers and the townspeople who took care of them. The songs are heartfelt, and the feelings aroused by the vignettes of displaced souls are intense. The moment, for instance, when the passengers turn to an unseen television screen and let out a collective gasp at the terrible news footage will prompt a familiar spasm of dread in anyone with the remotest connection to that day.
But one wonders, when confronted on the musical stage by dramatizations of recent events with profoundly unsettling resonances, how much we can divorce ourselves from reality and experience this kind of production freshly. In fact, part of the calculus for a musical such as “Come From Away” or “Mother Emanuel” is that we do come in with a bias for immense sympathy. So the puzzle remains: Are we reacting to an artful endeavor or simply communing with our own painful memories?
So what response is possible to a show such as “Mother Emanuel” other than affirmation? Written by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Adam Mace and Christian Lee Branch, and directed by Maharaj, “Mother Emanuel” was produced this summer at the New York International Fringe Festival and brought back for several performances at downtown’s SoHo Playhouse, as part of an encore series of hits from the recent fringe festivals in New York and Edinburgh.
It is, as you’ve surmised, quite moving. Four actors — Marquis Gibson, Christian Lee Branch, Lauren Shaye and Nicole Stacie — portray all nine of the victims in the historic black church, familiarly known as Mother Emanuel. Mercifully, and justly, the name of the shooter (he reportedly confessed to the crime) is never mentioned, and, to honor that decision, his name won’t be used here, either.
He’s not the point of “Mother Emanuel” — or not directly, anyway: A portion of Obama’s funeral oration, citing the need for stricter regulation of guns, is declaimed by Gibson (who is particularly good here). Imagining for us the Bible group gathering that awful night, the 90-minute show intersperses the singing of some rafter-raising gospel amid interludes in which each of the nine characters, ages 27 to 87, provide glimpses of their own rich, spiritually guided lives.
Our understanding is meant to be enriched, too, by our encounter with the diverse array of personalities in the group, by learning that they were victims only in the last moment of their lives. Among those who died were the church pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator; a librarian; a retired custodian; and a recent college graduate who dreamed of opening a barbershop.
Like “Mother Emanuel,” “Come From Away” — which offers admirably deep reporting on how Gander’s citizenry assembled the resources to feed and shelter 7,000 frightened, unexpected guests — is more of a living memorial than a transformational narrative. We’re reminded here of the goodness human beings are capable of, and one leaves with a sensation of having been cleansed. There’s nothing wrong with that. And yet it’s also important to remember, as we all reflect on a musical’s impact, that in these cases the emotional component comes prearranged.
AUGUST 29, 2016
Hats off to Mother Emanuel! Those fortunate enough to catch this Fringe show at the SoHo Playhouse need no explanation. And those who missed it should start praying that it returns to a New York stage soon. Since others have already showered praise on the merits of this gospel musical, yours truly can only add that it really does deserve all the superlatives given it.
It sensitively dramatizes the lives of those shot down by a gunman during their Wednesday evening Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. For hard realism, this musical is the last word. But the real power of this piece lies in its honest portrayal of the four victims (there were actually nine killed at the Bible study), including the church's pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney.
Yes, this is a documentary musical play at its best. While it does take creative license, it beautifully captures the spirit of those who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Among other things, this musical is able to effect a fusion of topical material with a gospel background. No, one doesn't have to be a holy-roller to enjoy the show. But one may well be reborn to the wonder of theater during this 90 minute event. Of all the offerings at the Fringe, this show not only offers the talents of its cast (Christian Lee Branch, Marquis Gibson, Lauren Shaye, Nicole Stacie), authors (Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Adam Mace, Christian Lee Branch), and creative team (Douglas Cox, Paul Wilt, and Maharaj) but an opportunity to reflect on a hate crime and how to transcend its horror.