When you hear the name ‘Mahalia’, you might easily think of Mahalia Jackson, the female African American singer, whose legendary full throated gospel voice and ability to move so many people the world over with her music crowned her ‘Queen’, and earned her a place in world music history, as a trailblazer for Gospel Music. Me on the other hand… I wasn’t that familiar. When I would hear the name Mahalia Jackson, “Aretha Franklin – the Queen of Soul” would come to mind. Making that declaration publicly probably borders on blasphemy, but they say confession is good for the soul, so please forgive my ignorance. However, on Friday 8th May 2015, (which was forever ago… I’ve been quite busy and forgot I had this review pending) the distinction was made immaculately clear to me in JCS Entertaiment‘s production of Mahalia- A Gospel Musical.
With Book, Music and Lyrics by Tom Stolz, this production opened at The Little Carib Theatre on Thursday (7th May 2015), and after 20 performances or so at multiple venues around Trinidad, it continues to evangelize new theatre goers, and renew the spirit of the old faithful. So although NAPA has descended into a state of purgatory, a situation that has apparently limited the number of productions coming out this year, JCS Entertainment’s #MahaliaMusical is a clear indication that theatre is still very much alive and well. As this production is STILL running, thankfully this review is not yet obsolete, and although it seems like an eternity since I attended this performance, to this day I haven’t stopped singing its praises :).
As a matter of personal taste, I wasn’t particularly fond of Tom Stolz’s script. His book, initially conceived for three actors, (one to play Mahalia, one to play every other female role, and one to play every other male role) was very monologue heavy and laden with exposition to the point that it almost leaves no sort of subtext to play with. However, I had to accept it for what it was. Daiz de way de man write it so daiz de way they hadda do it; Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed. In JCS Entertainment’s production though, the cast was expanded to include seven main actors and a full gospel ensemble (thank you JCS for keeping actors employed 🙂 ).
Furthermore, what was done with the material; how it was directed, visually, musically, and dramatically, was nothing short of inspired! The direction almost seemed thematic. Even the house announcements .- which I would have paid money to hear that alone – were thematic, and added a very unique touch to the entire experience; an experience that took you to church in more ways than one – Just wait till the dig a little deeper number – embodying the history, definition and spirit of gospel music… let me explain.
There’s a saying which goes “blessed are those who do not see and yet they believe”. Unlike in much of the previous work produced by this team, the set was static and minimalist – no bells, no whistles. Randy Halfhide’s design consisted mainly of a textured cyclorama wall, some platforms to the back, a few boxes, two “pianos” and a large trunk. Simple as it may be, these items offered a lot of versatility and practically transfigured to whatever it needed to be – a seat on the Illinois Central train when Young Mahalia (Mandisa Granderson) left her Jim Crow town of Pinchin Town, New Orleans, in search of a better life in Chicago; Carnegie Hall, where Adult Mahalia’s (Llettesha Sylvester) delivered a riveting and electrifying performance; her friend Mildred’s (Paula Hamilton) car, in which they journeyed to Montgomery to aid in the Civil Rights Movement; the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. (Conrad Parris) gave his iconic “I have a Dream” speech, and everything else in between.
Through Raymond Choo Kong’s direction, the actors’ consistency, interpretation, and commitment to the action, and Bente Lashley‘s dynamic lighting design, I was able to take that leap of faith, fill in the gaps… and SEE the world in which the play is contained. Treldon Thompson‘s very detailed and layered sound design (which were too loud on occasion on that night… and I wasn’t too convinced with that gunshot) skillfully recreated the ambient noises of that world which allowed me to suspend my disbelief even further and, in a truly transcendent experience, actually BE a part of that world… and isn’t that the apparent truth of the theatre?- the suspension of disbelief?
Gospel music is organic! It is neither imitated or duplicated – it is a personal experience that comes from within. Gospel, more specifically Black Gospel evolved out of the African oral tradition.
“It is an instance in how black people’s spiritual and musical genius borrowed from what was introduced to them, and then made it their own. It was difficult for them to sing naturally within the print oriented strictures of the European hymn form, so they improvised- stretched out the musical signature, introduced the syncopation and the percussive rhythm.”
~ Reverend Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker (The History of Gospel Music)
Many African descendants at the time were unable to read, so the harmonies that they came up with were organic. As their sound was dictated by ‘the spirit‘ rather than a score, the way in which a particular song will be vocally arranged and ministered would be unique to that individual or group and, depending on how one is moved by the spirit, the dynamics would be different each and every time. With that said, after being swept up with Mahalia fever and having binge watched countless documentaries, interviews, and performances, it was interesting to discover that the actors made no attempt to mimic the real life characters they were playing. Kearn Samuel’s portrayal of Thomas Dorsey – the “father of black gospel music”, was no where close to the Thomas Dorsey of all those documentaries, yet in a strange way, he was more Thomas Dorsey than the man himself, and although Conrad Parris was somewhat like MLK, he still brought his own interpretation and individuality to the role, which gave it life on stage.
In that same breath, while there were many popular pieces from Mahalia Jackson’s repertoire, including “Joshua fit the Battle of Jerrico“, “We Shall Overcome” and “Take my Hand, Precious Lord” I appreciated that the leading ladies (Mandisa Granderson and Llettesha Sylvester) did not imitate the vocal patterns of their original counterpart. In playing an Icon, Lord knows you have some pretty big shoes to fill. These actors kicked off those shoes and made their own path – barefoot, yet somehow still managed to exude the essence of their characters in their acting as well as their singing… and oooh Lordy sing they did! Furthermore, John Thomas’ vocal arrangement of the ensemble numbers, complimented by Abeo Jackson‘s choreography, took the performances on a completely higher level, enveloping us in the music and spirit of the era, so by the time the cast performed the reprise of “Move on up a little Higher” and “Oh When the Saints” in the grand finale (with Mahalia Currie-Medina poetically on lead vocals) I was hand clapping and foot stomping right along with them. It was an uplifting experience and for a considerable number of weeks after leaving the theatre, I still felt like I was walking on air.
Overall, the entire cast gave an excellent performance. I especially loved how the scene which made the parallels between biblical verses and the civil rights movement was staged. It was truly powerful! As a matter of fact, everything about this production was!
Early into their first run, the cast and company of Mahalia a Gospel Musical have really set the bar high. In doing so, they have also set themselves a hard task in finding a way outdo themselves with each successive performance, but as the saying goes, “where there is a will there is a way,” and knowing John Smith‘s and the JCS Entertainment team’s reputation for wanting to achieve perfection, bet your bottom dollar they will find that way. That being said, if you see nothing else this theatre season, make sure you go to see Mahalia-A Gospel musical! Although by regular standards the cost of admission is a bit pricey, the experience is worth every penny! … and that is the Gospel Truth!
‘Mahalia’ returns to The Little Carib Theatre Fri. 26th – Sun. 28th June 2015. Tickets $250 (Adult), $125 Senior Citizen, $75 (Child) $200 (Church Group). Call 461-4033 bookings and more information.