Challenges with idolatry, greed, the relationship between church and state, are just some of the themes discussed in the gospel musical, “Who Do You Love?”
Inspired by the Old Testament Book, Esther, and set in a fictional mega church, the two-hour musical is the contemporary retelling of the story of Esther, a woman who unexpectedly gains everything and is forced to choose between the life she has dreamed about and losing that life for the sake of her kinfolk.
“This story is about the challenges we face as the church, both corporately and as individual members of the body of Christ,” explained playwright Shaunda Miles, who currently works as the vice president of programming at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. “It’s about the great mystery of love and marriage. It’s also about social issues and the history of the relationship between church and state within the context of Black communities. We are all called for a purpose. God has commanded us all, and ultimately we all have to choose the extent to which we will travel to answer the call.”
Miles said she decided to write the play because she noticed things in her home church that confused her.
“There were women who idolized the pastor at the church I attended and I began to wonder what was up with these women. I realized that it was the enemy who was distorting the love that the women had for their pastor,” Miles said. “We (as women) are so caught up in being loved and we don’t realize that the love from God is the best love and it’s true.”
“I think the problems of the church never change: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and pride. We live in a society that has sequestered us,” Miles continued. “I can’t imagine what the pastors have to deal with to keep the church unified. I also wanted to talk about greed because we have to realize that God is sovereign and there’s enough out there for everyone. If people would read the Word, they would learn what’s for them.”
Miles said she based the play around the heroine of Esther because “she was a great woman who walked away from all her people. As women we are asked to sacrifice and Esther was the epitome of putting God first.”
The Pittsburgh premiere of “Who Do You Love?” took place last month at the New Hazlett Theater, on the North Side. It starred University of Pittsburgh senior Ivory Bennett as Hadassah St. James and Charles E. Timbers Jr. as Mordecai “Uncle No Nestor,” Hadassah’s uncle who takes her in after she is left alone following her mother’s suicide. Mordecai is the owner of The High Tower, a dilapidated apartment building next to a mega church.
Stephanie “Stevie” Akers played the demented Sissy Jones who lives in the High Tower. She constantly quotes the Bible, clad in a wedding dress waiting for God to send her a husband.
Reverend CJ Zachs was played by San Diego native Matthew Mason. Zachs is the pastor of the mega church who is being pulled in various directions in his life: his wife has left him because he is having multiple affairs with women in his congregation, while a shady councilman is trying to get Zachs to have the High Tower torn down to expand the church.
Karla C. Payne played Zachs’ faithful assistant, Nisa, who secretly wishes to become a minister. Nisa’s progress is hindered by her husband who is beating her.
Other members of the cast included David Minniefield, who portrayed Eric Armstrong; Angelique Antoniette Strothers played First Lady Vashti Zachs; Vendell Nasir II portrayed Councilman Hanes; TeeJay “the DJ” Johnson portrayed Deacon Johnson; Pariss Johnson portrayed Rev. Zachs mistress, Tequaila Lady; Purity Coleman played a lady in waiting; Yvette M. Burgess portrayed the Mother of the Church; Terri Lynn Smith was a member of the ensemble cast, along with James D. Sizemore III; and Bev Smith portrayed Radio Host Sister Ladybird Shirley.
The character of Ladybird Shirley was based on Miles’ own grandmother.
“Ms. Bev reminded me of my grandmother and when I called and asked her to be a part of ‘Who Do You Love?’ and she said yes, I was so excited,” Miles said.
“Shaunda is a very talented young woman and perhaps this will start a dialogue in the African-American community so that they can learn the priorities of the church. I’m glad that I can lend my voice to help because a lot of single women go to church and use that as the substitute for the man they don’t have,” Smith said. “Audiences can identify with the dynamics between the members of the church. You are supposed to be transposed when you walk into the church. Not by the building but by the church.”
Choreographer Greer Reed saw “Who Do You Love?” as a breath of fresh air in the gospel play landscape.
“I wanted to do it because it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in theater and I remember how much I loved it,” Reed said. “I am a fan of Shaunda’s work and this is great writing and a great message.”
Miles first premiered “Who Do You Love?” as a reading in March of 2007 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater in Pasadena, Calif.
The play’s premier starred and was co-produced by Grammy-Award winning singer, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary. It was successfully performed with a standing-room-only crowd.
Following the success of the reading, the producing partners of “Who Do You Love?” decided to mount a full production at the Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills. The cast included Tony Grant from R & B singing group AZ Yet. Songs for the production were written by Campbell, Miles and Darrell Alston.
During the winter of 2007, following a chance encounter on an airplane, “Who Do You Love?” opened at the Richmond Shephard Theater in New York. Although it opened to meager crowds, word of mouth carried the production through March 2008.
In June of 2009 “Who Do You Love?” made a successful Long Island premiere at Perfecting Faith Church as part of the Single & Saved Conference.