In January, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the congregation's response to 90 seconds of terror. Six months earlier, a lone, white guman named Dylann Roof entered the historically black church and started shooting. He was a disturbed white supremacist who wanted to start a new civil war. Days after the deadly event that killed nine, families of the victims attended Roof's bond hearing in a gesture of forgiveness.
"History can seem far away, and, all of a sudden, it's just right there," says Facing History and Ourselves director Marti Tippens Murphy, comparing recent events to things that happened in and around Emanuel AME dating back to its founding in 1818. Look What a Wonder, the gospel musical Facing History brings to Memphis for a one-night-only performance this week, tells the story of the church's founder Denmark Vesey, a slave who literally won a lottery and bought his freedom. With spiritual-inspired music composed by Walter Robinson, Look What a Wonder also tells of the slave insurrection Vesey planned and the terrible suppression of that rebellion. Early members of the church were terrorized and 30 black conspirators hanged.
Robinson and Facing History have worked together in the past, touring Look What a Wonder around the country. The show was eventually produced off-Broadway as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2007.
"It still resonates with our work," Murphy says, "with scenes about identity, voice, and decision-making during times of injustice. Art is such a powerful way to explore that ... It's not about blame and shame, but about what we can learn. And how we can use it to create a stronger and more just society."