SONGS AND SPIRIT Bryant as Jackson.
Mahalia Jackson was more than a celebrity before her death in 1972. The singer was and remains an American icon, a powerful voice reminding us of the country's historical and spiritual heritage.
Mixed Magic Theatre first staged When Mahalia Sings in 2010. Conceived by the theater's founder Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and written and directed by his son Jonathan, it was a swift hour-long review with 10 songs and a slim narrative.
But hallelujah! The current incarnation is a marvelous vindication of that tentative theatrical effort. Staged in Trinity Repertory Company's downstairs theater (through July 1), Mahalia doesn't lose its momentum over the course of its powerful two acts and 18 songs, though it remains structurally shaky.
The premise is the same. The young Mahalia (Lydia Angel Cooper) is traveling by train from her native New Orleans to Chicago. Sitting next to her is Louis Armstrong (Amos Hamrick Jr.), who introduces himself as Satch. They spend their time together with the trumpet player trying to convince her to use her wonderful voice to make a living as a jazz and blues singer rather than sticking to gospel, and she keeps insisting that her talent should be devoted to praising the Lord. (Mahalia was 16 when she moved to Chicago, but not with Armstrong and not to sing with gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, as is said here — they didn't meet for two years, though she eventually toured with his choir.)
Cooper is a dynamic delight as the young Mahalia, with a voice and delivery style that can easily handle such lively numbers as "Up Above My Head" and not neglect the gentleness of something like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Hamrick's presence and voice are equally compelling as Satch, full of vitality. Outstanding among the ensemble for occasional touches of personality is Jason Quinn.
In the ensemble earlier and playing the older Jackson in the second act is Barbara Bryant. This is a calmer, more subdued Mahalia, doing a meditatively slow "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" with Duke Ellington at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, and after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, agreeing to "sing something special" for him "if I go before you do." At first we think that this is going to be Bryant's act, but soon, after those brief flash-forwards, the younger Mahalia and Satch take over the narrative again. The act is bookended, though, with our seeing Mahalia at the end of her life, in a wheelchair because of her feet being troubled by diabetes, which also led to heart failure at age 60.
Much of the reason that gospel music has been so important to the African-American community is that the historical record has been an ongoing litany of tribulation and trauma. In such context, a lamenting gospel song such as "Troubles of the World" had to be included, as well as the lighter-toned "'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do." But there is joy as well, with "Up Above My Head," "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," and "This Train Is Bound for Glory," There is even pride, in "I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing about in My Songs."