JCS Entertainment, after a few fantastic runs of musical entertainment, brings back to the stage their incredibly successful Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, giving even more people an opportunity to see what the acclaimed production has to offer. There are, however, a few changes from the last time folks have seen it. This time around they move from Little Carib Theatre to the larger Queen’s Hall, and the talented Lletesha Sylvester’s portrayal of Mahalia Jackson is now met by the at least equally capable singer Nataki Lendor.
For the uninitiated, Mahalia: A Gospel Musical is the Tom Stolz-written story of the ‘Queen of Gospel’ Mahalia Jackson, from the start of her career in the 1930’s, to her performances at the side of Martin Luther King Jr., to her eventual death in 1972. If it sounds like chronicling a 40-year musical legacy along with all its social and cultural relevance sounds like a lot to handle in just a couple hours, it certainly is. The first half Tom Stolz’ script moves at an almost break-neck pace, jumping quickly from moment to moment with what feels like solid walls of Mahalia’s narration, slammed into by immediate shots of often abrupt-seeming dialogue. The continuous nature of Mahalia‘s exposition seemed to make each act of the production into its own long scene instead of their own separate moments. It doesn’t help that the lighting choices that separated some moments from others often ended too quickly or were betrayed by some incomplete blackouts.
A lot happens instantaneously, competing for the exact same time and space that Mahalia shares her revelations with us through. As such, the entire world exists on this one stage, save for the few precious moments that the chorus of singers come directly to the audience. Because the play is constantly moving from one aside to another, the stage never feels empty per se. But, with Queen’s Hall’s stage holding a decent amount of players, one may find themselves wondering why they didn’t take the liberty of giving some stage space to the extra ones they had created for their production. In particular, there is one dance number off of the corner of the stage that it was at once hard to see and distracting from the presence onstage. Some of the ensemble chorus placements are also lost near the pit of the theatre, or surround the audience in a way that seems all too repetitive.
The stage is very creatively used, however, in some ways that speak to the magic of minimalism. Some transformations of character and time take place right in front of our eyes on stage, with just a quick rummage through an onstage trunk. All it takes to make a convincing car scene, you’ll discover, is a couple boxes and a couple talented actors who commit and have fun doing it. If anything, Mahalia is an exercise in discovering what’s possible with a little bit of restraint and a lot of creativity. And some faith, obviously.
For folks who are afraid of musicals like JCS Entertainment’s other Spectacular September production, Jesus Christ Superstar, which can seem to like no more than wall-to-wall music, no need to fear. In a lot of ways, Mahalia: A Gospel Musical (2016) is just a play with lots of songs. Those songs aren’t dialogue or exposition transformed into lyrics, but rather examples of Mahalia’s life as a Gospel artiste, plying her trade, praising her creator, and connecting it to the world we’re observing through her eyes. But, if you’re looking for a play in some conventional sense, this isn’t it either. For one, Mahalia doesn’t really have any conflict, but rather focuses itself on providing a snapshot of the history of music, politics and race through Mahalia Jackson’s experiences as a singer and activist. It’s hard to tell whether that’s intentional, though – the story of a Gospel singer making a ridiculous amount of money is itself a conflicting one, without all the difficulties around race and politics in the time of Jim Crow. Many a time, Mahalia expresses concern at continuing professionally singing songs of praise to her God, fearful that she has deviated from her faithful mission. But that fear is unfortunately never really on stage for very long…
Most folks watching this production for the first time may not even be aware that the script originally had three characters in mind. But the proof is in the portrayals. Kearn Samuel [as Thomas Dorsey and Blind Francis] and Paula Hamilton [as Mildred Falls] start off as humorous companions in Mahalia’s tale, but their presence starts to ground the story in simple yet impactful ways. When the pace of the play slows in the second half, Nataki Lendor begins to do Mahalia greater justice, taking her time to give some of the more emotional moments the attention they deserve, but it can be said that her portrayal is much more exposition than emotion. Special mention goes to Conrad Parris as Martin Luther King Jr., who doesn’t just add a contextual definition to the play, but brings dimension that seems to bring the stage itself to new life as he comes on. The entire cast’s commitment to delivery in this play, both musically and in dialogue, also deserves some praise. I don’t at all imagine it’s easy to keep a Southern accent for two hours between speech and song.
All in all, Mahalia: A Gospel Musical may not sweep you off your feet, but it will make you want to get up and sing some praises a few times. The characters are fun, and the Gospel is faithful and fervent, but it’s also not at all a play for just the Christian. If you’re a musical fan, or looking for a play that is neither contrived nor compromising, this is as good a watch as any. If you are, however, looking for a challenging piece of theatre that questions the relationship between Gospel and civil rights, or the morality of making money off praise music, this isn’t that philosophical at all. But maybe it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes, all we need to do is take in a decent story and give thanks.
Mahalia: A Gospel Musical concluded its public run on Sunday 18th September 2016. JCS Entertainment Spectacular September continues with their production of Jesus Christ Superstar which will run at Queen’s Hall from Sept 3rd – Oct 3rd. For more details email JCS Ent at email@example.com or call 488-2330 or 620-2244
About The Author:
Brendon O’Brien is a Spoken Word poet, activist, playwright and director. He is founder and artistic director of the.art.IS Performing Arts Company, where he has created performing arts work for the last three years. He also facilitates performance workshops, with special interest in Spoken Word poetry, and is a performance poet with the recently formed Griot Guild. Brendon was also host of the SynergyTV political talk show ‘New Talk’ in 2016. His directorial credits include The Gaza Monologues (2010), Body=Barrier (NDATT Theatre Festival 2013) and To Light (2016).
The Author attended the performance on Friday 16th September 2016