Review: “Mother Emanuel” at FringeNYC 2016

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“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.”


“Mother Emanuel” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and Rebel Theater at The SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (between 6th Avenue and Varick Street). 

The cast of “Mother Emanuel” features Christian Lee Branch, Marquis Gibson, Lauren Shaye, and Nicole Stacie. Production photos by Michela Rynczak.

For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit For more information about the 20th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit The running time is 90 minutes.

Photo: Christian Lee Branch (with tambourine), Nicole Stacie (with tambourine), Lauren Shaye, and Marquis Gibson. Credit: Michela Rynczak.