“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” This is a Bible verse from Ecclesiastes, and this is what playwright Walter Robinson kept repeating as he told the story of his play’s journey to finding a stage.
For Robinson, the journey to the stage at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center has been a long one. In fact, the journey could be a theatrical play in itself, with all its twists and turns and characters. But Robinson has finally found another place to stage his original interpretation of the incredible story of Denmark Vesey, a black slave who lived in the early 19th century.
Robinson wrote and directed the show “Look What a Wonder” more than 20 years ago, and over the years has struggled to find a venue for the performance. Actors have performed the show in many private homes, including the homes of Dr. James P. Comer and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. When Robinson won the New York Music Theater Festival annual contest, the show was performed there in 2007. However, Robinson had trouble finding theaters that would agree to host the show. At one point, when pitching the show to Broadway producers, he was told, “A gospel musical about slavery will not sell tickets on Broadway.”
But now, with assistance from the Ford Foundation and other donors along the way, Robinson’s time has come. The concert performance will take the stage at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center on Monday, August 12, at 7 pm.
The play shares the life of Vesey, a freed slave who organized an uprising against Southern Carolina slaveholders in 1822. Although Denmark himself was free, his wife and children were still in chains, and he could only see them once a week, while at a church that indoctrinated slaves with a false gospel of their inferior destiny.
The “Look What a Wonder” cast includes two Broadway actors — Antoine Smith (“The Color Purple”) and Soara Joye Ross (“Les Miserables”) — and six players from a well-known Newark gospel choir.
With an increasingly divisive political climate and the elevation of topics like slave reparations recently reaching the national spotlight — Democratic candidates debated the issue onstage for the first time during the July presidential debates — Robinson sees a cultural shift and a necessity to share this story with the American people.
Before the curtain opens, artifacts from the Whydah Gally slave ship will be on display in the lobby. Guests can look at and touch Akan gold, copper rings, Manila bracelets, iron tools, and more. The Whydah Gally sunk off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717, and was discovered in 1984. The ship is still being excavated by Barry Clifford, who will be in attendance to answer questions. Also on display will be an animated slideshow depicting the thousands of slaves shipped between the years 1800 and 1860.
After the curtain closes, Robinson’s goal is to share “Look What a Wonder” with as many people as possible. In partnership with Newark city schools, he will bring the show to classrooms to educate students on a history that, he said, is often denied or undertaught.
“There are more than 1,400 monuments to Confederate soldiers in this country. This show is like a monument for the slaves,” said Robinson.
Tickets for “Look What a Wonder” are free. To claim yours, email firstname.lastname@example.org.