Music Department’s Potter brings daring slave escape to life in musical

by Chuck Gordon

The story of Robert Smalls has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster or bestselling novel: A 19th century slave in South Carolina steals a Confederate ship and pilots it to the safety of a Union blockade.

“It was incredibly daring,” says Dr. Kenney Potter, chair of Wingate University’s music department, who ran across the story in 2014.

Smalls’ story seemed ready-made for a project Potter had been mulling over for a while: taking slave songs and traditional congregational music sung in white churches and blending them together in one show.

Seven years later, Potter is nearly finished with Robert Smalls: The Musical. This weekend, he and current students and alumni of the Music Department will “workshop” the show in McGee Theatre, on the main campus of the University.  The workshop performance, to be held Sunday, June 13 from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., is free and open to the public. Unvaccinated audience members are asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

Potter, who served as both composer and lyricist for Robert Smalls, warns that the show is far from a finished product. The workshop is used to modify the pacing, correct any musical notes that don’t quite work, and generally smooth the edges.

“If you’re writing a novel, you finish a rough draft and might give it to someone else to read,” says Potter, who is the show’s composer and lyricist. “Same thing with a workshop. I have an idea of how this is supposed to happen in my head, but I can’t tell if something’s realistic on stage. I can’t tell if this person is going to need four measures of music to cross the stage or if they can do it in two.”

Sunday’s performance will answer some even more important questions.

“Probably the most important question is, is it any good? Is it compelling?” Potter says. “A composer isn’t the best judge of their music.

“The students and alumni have been amazing in this process,” he adds. “They have brought ideas that are enhancing the storytelling.”

Potter is still lining up a date and venue for the world premiere. What audiences will see and hear once the musical premieres is the story of an intelligent, cunning risk-taker, set to the tune of 19th-century slave songs, gospel tunes, traditional church music and even sea shanties. About half of the music comes from existing 19th-century songs; the rest are original tunes created by Potter.

The show tells a powerful story. As a slave, one of Smalls’ jobs was to steer the CSS Planter, a ship used by the Confederacy to plant mines, deliver soldiers and scout waterways. He put his knowledge of Charleston Harbor and the nearby waterways to use when he and eight other slaves steered the boat out of the harbor on May 12, 1862. Posing as the commander of the ship, Smalls flashed the necessary hand signals at each checkpoint they encountered, eventually raising a white flag when they neared the Northern Blockade.

Smalls went on to become a central figure in the fight for emancipation and eventually served as a U.S. congressman.

“I’ve really grown to have great admiration and respect for Robert Smalls,” Potter says.

After conceiving of the idea for the musical in 2014, Potter got to work on it in earnest in 2017, though it was difficult to find extended stretches in which to work on it. In addition to chairing Wingate’s Music Department, serving as professor and directing the University Singers, Potter also serves as choral conductor for Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and artistic director of the Charlotte Master Chorale.

When he’s found time, Potter has dipped in and out of his budding musical since 2017. He had planned to workshop the show in April of 2020, but Covid put those plans on hold. That turned out to be a blessing, as Potter did what he believes were much needed revisions.

“That gave me time to really go back and look at it,” he says. “I made a lot of changes. It’s a better show, a more cohesive show, than it was before.”

Soon, the world will learn more about his story through an entertaining musical, thanks to the Wingate Music Department.

June 9, 2021