MetroStage's 'Mahalia' is a must-hear event


By: Barbara Mackay
January 26, 2010


Whether you're a fan of gospel music or know nothing about it and would like to learn, "Mahalia, A Gospel Musical" at MetroStage is a "must-hear" event.

"Mahalia" has just three performers, but their effect is huge. The incomparable Bernardine Mitchell plays Mahalia Jackson. S. Renee Clark appears as Mahalia's aunt and also her accompanist. William F. Hubbard plays five roles, including Mahalia's cousin and Martin Luther King Jr.

The story, by Tom Stolz, is told in the first person, with Mitchell narrating a few events of her young life, her love of music, her decision to leave New Orleans for Chicago to become a nurse. It becomes immediately clear that the young Mahalia's primary concern, the thing that propels her from one endeavor to the next, is devotion to her religion.

Stolz's script outlines that devotion through its narrative but also through its music, a mixture of spirituals and songs by W.C. Handy, T.A. Dorsey, Charles Tindley ("We Shall Overcome") and other composers. As Mitchell infuses those songs with her extraordinary range and rich contralto voice, the music repeatedly illustrates Jackson's access to an otherworldly plane.

In addition to playing various roles, Clark and Hubbard are accomplished keyboard artists and they take turns playing the piano and organ that face one another on the stage. Except for a few chairs and a table, there's little else onstage. Place is established through projections on a screen: New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Paris; Jerusalem.

But the effect of those places is felt through Mitchell's monologues, as she describes her feelings when first seeing the Chicago streets, preparing to sing at Carnegie Hall, or traveling to the Holy Land.

"Mahalia," skillfully directed by Thomas W. Jones II, is not a detailed biography. But it vividly creates the times and events Jackson lived through, from 1911 when she was born, through the Depression and the March on Washington until 1972 when she died. And it affords a crystal clear image of Mahalia Jackson the woman -- her personality, humor, determination, faith and, of course, her unforgettable voice.