Last June, Christian Branch ’11 was enjoying his summer working as an administrative assistant in SJC Brooklyn’s Office of Student Life. A month earlier he’d performed at the College’s 96th annual commencement ceremonies, singing for a room of nearly 1,000. An avid gospel singer and performer, Branch was accustomed to standing ovations and handshakes greeting him after every performance.
On June 17, 2015, the SJC Brooklyn alum was 700 miles away when a lone gunman entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people during a prayer service.
Being that [Adam, Rajendra and I] each grew up very involved in our churches, to hear about this act of violence happening in a church just shook us to our core.” — Christian Branch ’11
The tragedy garnered a large amount of news coverage. Media outlets were dispatched to delve into the lives of the nine lost. President Barack Obama even delivered a eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was one of victims. By July 2015, the story faded from headlines when yet another mass shooting stole the spotlight. Ultimately, the Charleston Nine represented only 2 percent of the 475 killed in U.S. mass shootings in 2015. Their stories were all but forgotten by 2016.
Yet the tragedy did not escape the minds of Branch, fellow SJC Brooklyn alum Adam Mace ’08 and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj — co-creators of the gospel musical Mother Emanuel, a dramatic interpretation of the tragedy at the Charleston church.
“Being that (Adam, Rajendra and I) each grew up very involved in our churches, to hear about this act of violence happening in a church just shook us to our core,” Branch told theater blog Theater in the Now this August. “We had so many emotions whirling within us and the only way we could express them was to use our artistry, and Mother Emanuel was born.”
Mother Emanuel, a one-act performance told by four actors (Branch, Marquis Gibson, Lauren Shaye and Nicole Stacie), travels through the past and present lives of the nine victims in their last hour of life.
The performance opened this summer as part of the New York International Fringe Festival: FringeNYC. The largest multi-arts festival in North America, FringeNYC presents programming by nearly 200 of the world’s best emerging theatre troupes and dance companies.
“Mother Emanuel was truly a labor of love,” Branch said. “It was the first time I ever wrote a play because the story of the tragedy struck a chord within me. In Mother Emanuel, we set out to show a truthful glimpse of the power of community, love and faith.”
Co-written by Branch and Mace, Mother Emanuel received heaps of praise within its first week. A New York Times review singled out Branch’s “astonishing vocals,” calling the play a “gorgeous, rafter-raising gospel musical … defiantly vibrant celebration of the lives of those who died, and an excellent piece of documentary theater.”
For Branch and Mace, storytelling through theater was embedded in their lives from their years as undergraduates at SJC Brooklyn. Both alumni immersed themselves with the College’s creative arts — specifically the school’s Chapel Players club. Combined with their strong roots in spirituality, a fitting tribute for the Charleston Nine began to take shape.
“I have always been fascinated by the sharing of emotions that theatre allows,” Branch said. “Whenever I get on a stage or see a performance, the human condition is there in your face and you embrace it and let it move you.”