“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.