Sweet inspiration

Mixed Magic’s When Mahalia Sings
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 8, 2010


For more than three decades, until her death in 1972, Mahalia Jackson’s powerful contralto voice raised the spirits of even nonbelievers through her inspiring gospel singing. In an original production, Mixed Magic Theatre is reminding us about her legacy in the premiere of When Mahalia Sings (through April 17).

The program was conceived by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and was written and directed by Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, marking his first production as artistic director of Mixed Magic, taking over the role from his father. Musical direction is by Kim Morrison. It is the first presentation of the company’s Mahalia Jackson Project, which will present additional programming before concluding in October 2011 on her birthday.

In this hour-long production, 10 songs are held together by a rudimentary gloss on Mahalia’s career, with four other actors taking on various roles. Mahalia is played by Barbara Bryant, who in an appropriate wig presents an uncanny physical resemblance to her subject. Vocally she is a pleasure to listen to, but the enormousness of her task may have made her too self-conscious to put her whole heart and soul into these songs. Too often she holds back.

A kind of narrative develops as we initially see Mahalia on a train ride to Chicago, being talked up by a man who says his friends call him Satch (Marlon Carey). He is Louis Armstrong, of course, and while they never met that way, this device not only reminds us of the musical journey she was on, but develops into an even more clever metaphor by the end.

Satch keeps trying to convince her to join him, the self-proclaimed “greatest trumpet player in the world,” and perform on the road in his band. She remains insistent that while she appreciates jazz and blues, her true voice is gospel singing, performing “God’s music.” One of her major influences was singer, guitarist, and gospel songwriter Sister Rosetta Tharpe, played here with quick-fingered zeal and fine voice by Kim Trusty, who also delivers a jumping “Up Above My Head.”

The exception to these all being gospel songs is “Strange Fruit,” the wrenching depiction of lynching made famous by Billie Holiday, sung by Trusty. Though it wasn’t part of Mahalia’s repertoire, it was important to include, to help establish the emotional history of the singer and her most empathetic listeners.

In similar regard, at one point Mahalia says that she loves the Lord even when she can’t make sense of what he has allowed to happen to her people. After that observation, company members softly begin such songs as “Amazing Grace” and “Motherless Child,” overlapping each other’s voices, leading into Mahalia singing “The Trouble of This World.” Nicely structured.

The only time that Bryant isn’t portraying Mahalia is twice, once briefly and incidentally, when Kim Pitts-Wiley does so. Accompanying herself on piano, she convincingly depicts Mahalia as a young singer impressing listeners with her energetic rendition of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” She also has done the music direction.

“I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Songs” is both a song title and a declaration by Mahalia that runs through this string of songs. An important link in her life was the American Civil Rights Movement, established strongly in one scene. Jason Quinn, whose deep velvet voice powers “There Will Be Peace In the Valley” at one point, mops himself with a handkerchief and complains about how hot it is. We soon realize that it is the 1963 March on Washington. Carey delivers a nugget from his “I Have a Dream” speech, Mahalia sings “How I Got Over,” and the combination yokes together African-American church fervor and social spirituality better than an opinion page think piece ever could.

This presentation succeeds best when the company as a whole is involved, such as when they join together in “Come On Children Let’s Sing” or when there is joshing interplay.

When Mahalia Sings ends with an impassioned full-troupe sing-along of the up-tempo “Didn’t It Rain,” complete with handclapping on the upbeat for counter rhythm. As a whole, the production is enjoyable, but if it had attained half that exultation throughout, as Mahalia Jackson managed to achieve in just about all she sang, it would be magnificent.

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