Bottom left: Dorothy A. Lastice, Center Asia Craft as Mahalia Jackson bottom right Crystal Rae Top left: Larry D.Cooper, Jr. and Andre’ Neal in “Mahalia” at the Ensemble Theatre. | Photo credit: David Bray photo
One thing for sure, Mahalia Jackson was born to sing. Not even the close quarters of a three-room New Orleans shanty in a neighborhood east of the Mississippi River, called Pigeon Town, could hold her back from belting out the melodic songs that would one day captivate the nation.
Tom Stolz’s gospel musical, “Mahalia,” the season’s spring opener for the Ensemble Theatre, expresses the Queen of Gospel’s life musically between two lively and song-filled acts. Asia Craft (Mahalia) brings the majestic gospel singer to life with her eerily similar orotund vocals, her connection with the audience and her unwavering wit. The mind-blowing five-person ensemble left the audience in awe, evoking a range of emotions from laughter to pain.
Director, Shirley Marks Whitmore, made sure that we found a new love for Mahalia and gospel music as she depicts the legendary singer as a devout Christian with an affinity for Blue’s music. If you have never researched Mahalia, then you would imagine that because of the success she had in the gospel arena that it must have been her first love. To contrast that belief, the first scene opens on Mahalia prancing about and singing the Blues.
Infusing harmonious vocals and heartfelt tones, Asia Craft’s powerhouse performance gave the audience the feeling that she was not just the character, but that she was Mahalia. The audience finds out that it was not Mahalia’s love for sultry blues that brought the nation together, but her rhythmic gospel hymns that led her to become the voice of an era – The Civil Rights Movement.
The scene is set in the Jim Crow South during the 1920s, a time where black’s means of survival came from back-breaking work in the fields and inside the homes of the privileged. Mahalia sings Bessie Smith’s “Careless Love Blues” and transports the audience (collective mind’s eye) from the humble shack where she was raised to the scene of an imaginary nightclub. Her household chores would serve as a stepping-stone to her musical journey as the wooden floors she kept spotless six days a week became her stage. Playing to an audience of two – her high-spirited cousin Fred (Andre’ Neal) and her callous Aunt Duke (Crystal Rae) – dressed in tie-dyed printed scarf and jagged cinnamon colored moccasins with cleaning rag in hand, Mahalia sings, sweeps and dusts with the radio playing in the background. Dream killer, Aunt Duke, reminded Mahalia every time she heard her sing the Blues that she was ungodly and that there was absolutely no joy in singing for the devil.
An apprehensive but hopeful Mahalia wanted more for her life, so she packed up to pursue a singing career in Chicago. Her boisterous, holy roller Aunt Duke ensures she does not leave without a proper send off – a baptism and a powerful talk on not using her voice to sing blues but to sing for God. With Aunt Duke’s blessing, 16-year-old Mahalia’s gospel journey began. Fruity voiced spirituals like “Highway to Heaven” and “Didn’t It Rain” filled her lungs as she sat on moveable gray blocks that depicted train seats.
The play’s use of tone and authentic backdrops, showcased Chicago as the very city Mahalia dreamed of. As Mahalia settled into the new city so did the audience. She took the audience on a trip down memory lane as they clapped and crooned familiar Negro Spirituals such as “Yes, God is Real” and “It Must Be Jesus” as if they were faithful members of a twenty pew Negro church.
Whitmore made sure to magnify the scenes with Mahalia and money. The correlation between the two highlighted a little known fact about Mahalia and the way she handled her growing wealth. She hilariously hid money in suitcases, her pockets and even her breasts. It was something about the money that crippled her throughout the play. Whitmore never alluded to money troubles, but she did highlight the fact that Mahalia coveted her riches. Whitmore said she wanted to add the shock factor of Mahalia not compensating her musicians well since she idolized money so much. As religious as the play depicts Mahalia to be, one can conclude that she believed and trusted in a higher power, but in order to relate to the artist, Whitmore uses money to illustrate Mahalia’s weakness.
The lavish fur coats and grandiose wigs changed throughout the scenes, but one thing that became a constant factor in her life was her title, the “Queen of Gospel.” The play did not concentrate on the wardrobe details of every major concert, instead focused on the deeply modulated gospel medleys that not only resonated with the audience, but also sang to their souls. Her newly adapted title as the Queen of Gospel, forced her to bring in more talent besides Rae, who also played her overly dramatic piano player, Mildred. She called up her disturbingly funny blind friend who so happened to be a famed organist, Francis (Neal).
It was the 50s and she was being summoned to sing at festivals and symposiums all over the states, but it was not until the day she sang in New York City’s Carnegie Hall that she became world renown. Her contralto voice and majestic poise captured the eyes and hearts of many, including a young southern minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr.
The musical director, Melanie Bivens, chose to close the first act with the rendition of Mahalia’s chilling Carnegie Hall performance of “Soon I Will Be Done With the Troubles of the World” and “How I Got Over,” bringing many to tears.
Act Two opens on a scene of King proposing that Mahalia sing to raise money for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “We Shall Overcome Some Day” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody” became Mahalia’s healing hymnals for the movement. Still photography from the movement flashed behind Neal who also portrayed a realistic variation of King’s articulate and commanding voice as he engaged the crowds.
Mahalia used gospel music to communicate the way she felt about the nation’s disparities, and when the time came, she used her voice to push people out of their comfort zones into civic action. The play could not have proceeded without a version of Mahalia’s “I’ve Been Buked,” the song she sang during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In one scene, Mahalia is depicted shouting to King at the march “Tell them about the dream, Martin” and from that simple push came one of the greatest speeches of all time, King’s improvised “I Have a Dream” speech.
The play’s humorous vibe lightened the sensitive scenes of the play. If you enjoy sing-a-longs with an added storyline, then “Mahalia” is a gospel musical that is a must see. From the striking performances of the cast to the director’s keen eye for research and detail, the musical breaths life back into the “Queen of Gospel.” Be ready to witness nostalgia mixed with resounding gospel sounds delivered by a stellar cast.
The play runs through February 26.
Where: Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, Houston
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends February 26.
Information: (713) 520.0055 or www.EnsembleHouston.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Ensemble celebrates 40 years with gospel musical Mahalia