PORTSMOUTH — “Set the House on Fire Gospel Concert,” an annual Seacoast celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, is going virtual this year, with music, guest speakers in “60 Seconds of Hope,” and a sneak peek at playwright Najee Brown’s latest work, “Stokely and Martin.”
This year the show is a collaborative effort by the Jukwaa Mazoa theater company, Seacoast NAACP and Seacoast Repertory Theatre (the Rep), with support from the Green Acre Baha’i Center of Learning.
It will be performed on the Rep’s Bow Street stage and unveiled online at 6:30 p.m. at www.facebook.com/seacoastrep on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 18.
The packed music slate includes The Funky Divas of Gospel, Reverend Jeff, the North Star AME Zion Church Band with Choir, and Ms. Vee and the Right Now Choir and Band.
The Rev. Robert Thompson and Sandi Clark Kaddy (who founded Jukwaa Mozoa) will host the program.
Brown, one of the organizers of the 21st annual event, considers it a timely call for unity amid the political divides, protests and pandemic of 2020 and the start of 2021.
“Dr. King was all about hope in the darkest times, so we want to show that,” Brown said.
It’s also part of the reason the Rep brought Brown, a playwright, actor and activist, on board this past summer.
Brian Kelly, director of marketing and development at the Rep, said he met Brown when the theater staged “Ragtime” last year. Though the Rep has presented shows with racial elements, Kelly felt that occasional programming wasn’t enough.
“We found that with the current moment, we had to do a little better, to start new conversations,” he said.
The Rep extended a job offer to Brown and he relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Seacoast this summer. He helms the new Sol Series, which focuses on perspectives from Blacks and other non-White races.
Brown said he’s been gratified, if a bit surprised, by the positive response from the largely White Seacoast community.
“That, as a New York person who grew up in probably not the best environment, has changed my life. I’ve found a lot of people who are as committed to this as I am,” said Brown, who lives in Kittery, Maine.
His work with the Rep is part education and part entertainment. He is not only writing new plays (including 2020’s “The Bus Stop” about five Black women who each have a loved one in prison) but is also doing outreach programs ranging from town hall meetings and consultations with police departments to a collaboration with the Black Trumpet restaurant on a community food pantry.
“I love working there. They’ve definitely given me the space to reach out to the community,” Brown said.
He’ll premiere a scene from “Stokely and Martin” (in which he portrays King) on Jan. 18 and then debut the full production in the Rep’s MainStage season opener on Jan. 28.
It’s inspired by a conversation about Black identity and the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s between King and youths including Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the “Black power” phrase and led the Black Panthers after Malcolm X’s death.
“I’ve actually gotten input from someone who was present at that conversation — Willie Ricks (who also is portrayed in “Stokely & Martin”). He basically told me what was said,” Brown said.