With “Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light,” Black Ensemble Theater has created a musical that contains next to no insight into the life of iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Penned and directed by Jackie Taylor, the musical spends more time offering cliched platitudes about life in general than it does exploring the life of its titular subject. The music is — per usual at BET — terrific. But every time that music stops, the show pretty much does likewise.
If you want insight or even an outline of Jackson’s crucial work as a civil rights activist or how she managed the extraordinary rise from elementary school dropout to global hit-maker to “the single most powerful black woman in the United States” (per Harry Belafonte), you won’t find it here. Taylor’s script feels rushed and incomplete. When not in song, the show itself feels under-rehearsed.
‘Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light’ ★★1⁄2 When: Through April 14 Where: Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Tickets: $55 – $65 Info: blackensemble.org
Jackson (Robin DaSilva) opens the show with a glorious contralto interpretation of “How Great Thou Art.” No matter what your beliefs about “Thou,” DaSilva makes the song soul-stirring. It’s a fabulous beginning. Decked out in a shimmery gown, DaSilva’s Jackson next appears before a tribunal of sparkly, crowned “Masters” (Cynthia F. Carter, Dwight Neal, Stewart Romeo). Jackson knows she’s died, but The Masters chuckle when she mistakes them for angels. Her repeated, ardent entreaties that she spend the afterlife with God is met with bemusement as The Masters tell Jackson that she is not in the afterlife, and that furthermore, nobody knows for certain what happens in the afterlife.
There’s a certain irony at work as The Masters give the famed gospel singer a brief primer in reincarnation, advising her that she might have countless lifetimes ahead of her before she even gets to the afterlife. That irony continues as Master One (Carter, clearly The Master in charge) notes that God doesn’t come locked into any particular gender. There’s a nod to the audience, who is, we’re told, “souls of endearment.” With that, The Masters urge Mahalia to begin her post-life life by making a joyful noise.
That cues the band and sets the scene for a roster of Jackson favorites. The first act is built around slow-jam iconic hymns (“His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”). The second act picks up the pace, with DaSilva raising the roof on “Lord Don’t Move the Mountain,” and the entire cast going for broke with the finale, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Music director/drummer Robert Reddrick helms a pocket orchestra (Adam Sherrod and Dolpha S. Fowler on keyboards, Gary Baker on guitar, Mark Miller on bass) that draws out the richness of the slower numbers and the infectious, foot-stomping verve of the faster ones. But not even the BET band can help with those between-songs scenes.
Problem One with the dialogue is that it paints Jackson’s life as a series of generic, one-note melodramatic vignettes. There is a criminally neglectful father. There is a vicious aunt who works Mahalia from dawn to dusk. There is the One True Love who dies before he and Mahalia can wed. There is the no-good lout who follows. These characters are pulled from Jackson’s life, but none of them plays on stage as much more than an exercise in one-note scenery-chewing.
Problem Two is the staging itself. Jackson’s “manifestations” (or memories) take place on perches above the stage. The actors are little more than shadows thank to dim lighting made almost opaque by a dark scrim that turns the “manifestations” into faceless lumps. These memories are interspersed with the musings of a chorus of floating heads that intermittently hover above stage, offering advice that could have been taken from those inspirational posters that feature disappearing footprints on sandy beaches. Again, Denise Karczewski’s lighting design doesn’t help here: These looming heads are supposed to be supernatural beings, but they resemble kids at a slumber party trying to scare each other by holding flashlights under their chins.
Once Jackson sets out for Chicago at age 14, “Mahalia” drops the curtain on her life. There’s no journey, no connection between the impoverished child who fled an abusive home and the superstar who drew upward of 50,000 people to her New Orleans funeral services. The only thing we learn about Jackson’s music is that it wasn‘t always received well by church folk who believed her jazz-influenced stylings had no place in the house of the Lord.
In the music of “Mahalia,” we get a glimmer of the joy she brought to countless others. But Taylor’s script offers little sense of the woman herself or the joys and triumphs of her life.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.