Last week, when one of my editors in Philadelphia asked me to join him for the regional premiere of MOTHER EMANUEL: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL PLAY, I wanted to refuse. I had never told him that my family and I have been members of the African Methodist Episcopal church (A.M.E.) for decades, nor did I tell him that the mere thought of someone re-conceptualizing the horrific massacre of the Emanuel Nine as a musical initially put me at great unease. When I first thought of this genre, my mind went to Broadway: big flashing lights, overdesigned sets, and songs about the “one who got away.”
MOTHER EMANUEL, conceived and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and co-authored by Maharaj, Christian Lee Branch, and Adam Mace, graciously avoids all of these tropes. We were not exposed to overblown dramatic subplots, extravagant musical numbers, not even any references to the murderer.
While set during the fateful Bible study on June 17, 2015, this show doesn’t look to incorporate the traditional framework of an A.M.E. Bible class to structure its production. Instead, MOTHER EMANUEL presents itself as a 95-minute worship service. Gospel hymns—including “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross”—carry this production.
The director enhances the show with a variety of choreographed dances, from stylized West African to liturgical movements—even a little shimmy for the kids. MOTHER EMANUEL’s staging features a thrust set, allowing the cast to interact with audience members, who are referred to throughout the production as “Mother Emanuel”—the church body. During his opening remarks, Maharaj encouraged everyone in attendance to sing, dance, and praise the Lord at will. The musical incorporates praise breaks into the narrative—providing several well-timed jokes—and invites the audience to participate in these moments, both explicitly and structurally.