Much like Mahalia: A Gospel Musical’s namesake, the performers in this Art Forms and Theatre Concepts production are people of faith. Some are ministers, others are preacher kids, and the rest are simply active churchgoers. Their performances, one imagines, are not far from their real lives.
Written by Tom Stolz and directed by Art Gilliard and Howard Nathan Brown, Sr., the musical follows the career of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, from her younger days in New Orleans to her years as a successful performer and later a civil rights activist.
The musical opens with Mahalia, played by Sheri McClain-Brown, dancing and singing to the music of Bessie Smith while cleaning the house. Her cousin Fred, played by Stephen E. Freeman, looks on and encourages her. Right away we see conflict: her shrewish Aunt Duke, a staunch Baptist, played by the Rev. Helen Freeman, scolds Mahalia for listening to “ragtime jazz” or what she calls “devil music.” Later, a Baptist preacher rebukes Mahalia for bringing “bouncing and shouting and clapping” into the church, but also for her unique heavenly visions. After the Great Depression, though, the people, in their desperation, come around to Mahalia’s style of worship.
As the title character, McClain-Brown does an outstanding job. She was believable, strong, and confident, and her voice is tremendous. She’s a very gifted talent indeed. Donna Lee Williams gives a charming performance as the piano player and encouraging friend, Mildred Falls. John Small, a terrific comic actor (if you saw Dock Street Theatre’s The Wiz, he was the Scarecrow) plays the parts of Thomas Dorsey (the “father of gospel” who initially helps launch Mahalia’s career by taking her on church circuit tours) and Pastor Lawrence. Small has an amazing voice and plays his parts with humor and verve.
Though the play drags somewhat in parts — the scene towards the end where Mahalia visits the Holy Land goes on a good while — and some sections feel slightly overacted, Mahalia is still well-worth seeing. The musical is packed with a lot of joyful, powerful singing, and the best parts are when Mahalia sings and the choir joins in. The singing is truly moving. You’ll leave the play with the feeling that the world is a little better, a bit brighter.