The History

Few people know about the approximately 1,500 free blacks who lived among a thriving slave society in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina. Floating in a social limbo between slavery and full citizenship, this group struggled to secure employment, purchase their own homes, and establish schools to educate their own.

The most intriguing free Black leader from this community was Denmark Vesey, the protagonist. He had previously spent seventeen years at sea as a slave and personal servant to the slave ship captain Joe Vesey. A few years after his master retired to Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey won the Charleston Lottery and was permitted to buy his own freedom with the winnings.

He knew, however it would take more than luck to forge a life of dignity in an urban society which still held 40,000 of his own race in slavery. Although he subsequently developed a prosperous trade as a carpenter and later purchased his own home, his wife and children were slaves. They lived in separate places, and he could only visit them with the master's permission. This fact and the haunting memories of his earlier years as a personal servant aboard the slave ship, with his forced complicity in the slave trade, were an emotional guarantee he would never forget the horrors of slavery.

The White Christian establishment held by a strong psychological yoke upon his people. They taught Blacks that slavery was God-ordained. Denmark Vesey and Morris Brown, a free Black minister, started the first independent Black church where both free Blacks and slaves could meet behind closed doors. Fearing the consequences of this autonomous group of slaves and freedmen, the Charleston government began to harass the church and arrest, beat, and fine parishioners under false pretenses.

The violence against his church was a turning point for Vesey. We cannot know what precise inferences he drew but Vesey began to plot an elaborate Black insurrection. Perhaps it was a culmination of the fact during his twenty two years of freedom he was taxed but could not vote; that he had few legal rights in his business (for free Black could only testify against another free Black or a slave, not against White); that his travel was limited to the state of South Carolina through a pass system; or that free Black children were frequently kidnapped into slavery. Now at fifty-five years of age, he was willing to sacrifice his social station, career, and home in order to liberate his people.

At first, only a small circle were privy to the details of the growing conspiracy. Two of these were the personal servants of the governor of South Carolina. But word leaked out and got back to the Whites. Upon hearing this, Vesey immediately appeared in person to the Charleston authorities, angry and upset that he was being named in such a "foolhardy plot." While the Whites were temporarily thrown off by Vesey's actions, he reset the date of the insurrection to a month earlier. However, when rumors persisted, the authorities sent a slave to spy on the conspirators. On the night on the intended rebellion, June 22, 1822, the state and city militia had closed off all major roads leading in and out of the city. Since the majority of the estimated 3,000 slaves involved were coming from the country, Vesey lost his best weapon--surprise-- and was forced to abort his plans. Later, he and thirty five others were captured and, at a trial closed to the public, judged guilty and hanged.

In Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done, Vesey's committed love for his wife, his children, for his people, and for freedom transcend the historical tragedy. His strory transmits to us a legacy of hope and a commitment to continue the struggle for liberation and justice for all people.

Fictionalized Story

The musical opens with the sale of Denmark Vesey's wife, Rose, his 12-year-old son son, Prosser, and his eight-year-old daughter, Chloe on the auction block. They are purchased by Col. Moore who is head of the Charleston Militia. Col. Moore has a strong and immediate romantic attraction to Rose.

Denmark must now get Moore's permission to see his wife and two children. On Sundays, Denmark and his family attend St Michael's, the institutional White Church who teach slavery is the Will of God. It is the one time a week Denmark can be with his family. Free Blacks and slaves are relegated to to back of the St Michael's.

Free Black minister, Morris Brown, inspires Free Blacks and slaves to leave St. Michael's ("Time We Got Outta Here!") and to start a new independent Black church called Shiloh. Denmark, an accomplished carpenter, oversees the construction of the new church ("Build The Church").

Meanwhile, Denmark wins $1500 in the Charleston South Carolina Lottery and now hopes ("Dreams Come True") to buy back his wife and children from Col Moore.

For people of color, Shiloh is the very first "freedom space" in Charleston, South Carolina's slave society ("Look What A Wonder Jesus Has Done"). Now that the Free Blacks and slaves can meet in Shiloh behind closed doors, they develop their own intepretation of the Bible. They assert that God wants them to be free ("Now What The Lord Did For Moses").

Fearing Shiloh's independent thought might be a threat to the slavery system, Charleston authorities requires Shiloh to have a White supervisor for all future meetings. After the restrictive injunction is delivered, Shiloh members debate amongst themselves how to respond. Some members feel it is best to go along with the requirement of a White supervisor, hoping in time he will eventually leave the church to themsleves. Other Shiloh members choose to resist any such intrusion. A reading of the US Preamble to the Declaration of Independence ("Preamble") unifies Shiloh into one voice of resistence---lead by Pastor Morris Brown ("Brave and Strong").

Denmark is unsuccessful in his personal attempts to buy the freedom of his entire family. Col Moore will not sell Denmark's children nor Rose, who Moore loves deeply. Denmark then plans to secretly escape via ship north to Philadelphia with Rose and his two children ("You Will Be Free"). They plan their escape Christmas night --a least suspecting time.

Denmark has recurring nightmares from his past years as a personal slave to slave ship Captain Joe Vesey. Denmark's post traumatic stress centers on the task that he was assigned on the voyages which took African slaves from West Africa to Charleston, SC. Denmark was the disciplinarian over the slave cargo and was required to beat any rebel or unruly slaves.

Col Moore has his own insidious plan. Christmas Eve Col Moore allows Prosser and Chloe to spend the night with their dad. That night Denmark has the recurring nightmare but is comforted by Chloe, who sings her dad a lullaby ("After This Night").

Christmas Day, Shiloh holds their Christmas Dinner without a required White supervisor.

Rose helps with the food preparations ("Food Song") and comes early to Shiloh. Charleston authorities crash Shiloh's festive dinner and beat and shoot resisting Shiloh church members ("No One Can A Hinder Me!"). By the time Denmark arrives with Chloe and Prosser, Shiloh is in disarray with Pastor Morris Brown mortally wounded on the floor. The scene triggers the flash-back of Denmark's most traumatic memory ("The Slave Ship"). There he re-lives whipping a rebel slave to death, a huge burden of guilt. Pastor Morris Brown now lay in Denmark's arms dying and asks Vesey to take his place and lead the resistance movement. Denmark sees an opportunity to redeem his past mistake.

Denmark makes a tough decision: he decides not to escape but to remain and lead resistance on behalf of all Free Blacks and slaves ("This Great Army"). Rose can not understand why Denmark is re-priorotizing his family. Denmark tries to explain ("If I Only Gave To You"). Rose leaves in dismay and prays Denmark will change his mind. Denmark leaves Chloe and Prosser in his home alone with Christmas gifts while he goes out to rally the Black community over this Shiloh tragedy.

Slave kidnappers attempt to take Prosser and Chloe, but Prosser manages to escape abduction. Chloe is taken. Rose is devastated by Chloe's adduction but is lovingly comforted in the arms of Col Moore who promises to track down and return Chloe through his "connections." Col Moore uses the abduction to show Rose Denmark's irresponsibility as a father.

Chloe sits captive in a dark windowless room ("Feels Like I Just Want To Die").

Denmark has organized a full scale slave rebellion and asks Rose to poison Col Moore ("Use These Herbs"), as that would give the rebels a supreme advantage. But if Rose kills Col Moore, she fears that Chloe will never be returned.

Col Moore confesses his love to Rose ("Answer My Prayer"). He promises to take care of her as his secret "mistress" and also to free Rose and her children after his death. Moreover, he claims he has located Chloe and proffers a document with her slave trader's address as proof. Moore says he will not arrange for Chloe's return unless Rose agrees to leave Denmark and be his mistress, saying, "Chloe and I come together."

Now suspecting Moore was behind the abduction all along, Rose feigns agreeing to leave Denmark and to make love with Moore. She poisons him and Moore dies in bed with Rose before the love act can take place ("Nothing We Can Do"). Rose takes the document with the address and leaves Moore's mansion with Prosser to support Denmark.

Intense fighting occurs between rebels and militia but the Blacks are over-whelmed and dispersed. Denmark meets Rose in a secluded wood. They affirm their love ("This Love"). They then go to get Chloe but when they arrive soldiers are waiting and arrest Denmark. In the confusion, Rose and Prosser slip away and escape.

With money Denmark had provided, Rose and Prosser secretly make their way safely aboard a ship to Philadelphia to a new free life. Prosser questions what happened to his dad ("Where Has Daddy Gone?").

Denmark is hanged for treason in the public square. In an after-life sequence, Denmark is embraced and forgiven by the Rebel Slave he killed aboard the slave ship ("And the truth…").

As the musical ends, eight-year old Chloe trembles on the auction block. She is sold back into slavery. She courageously affirms the strong faith that her father taught her ("I Know He Said Be Brave and Strong") even though she knows she will be a slave the rest of her life and will never see her family again.

The End.