At the Black Ensemble Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Black Ensemble Theater must have realized it was taking on a daunting challenge in presenting a musical biography of Mahalia Jackson. The woman has been called the greatest gospel singer in music history and the most powerful black woman in the United States at the peak of her career. She was both modest and self effacing and larger than life, a delicate mix to bring creditable to the live stage.
Jackson became an iconic figure for the powerful vitality of her singing combined with her strong religious beliefs and the unforced dignity of her presence. She was a major figure in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960’s and one of the best selling recording artists of the 20th century. Jackson was admired as much overseas as she was in the United States, carrying her humility with an unforced grace and sincerity as she stirred audiences throughout the world with her singing. Jackson was born in New Orleans and died in Evergreen Park, a suburb of Chicago. After Jackson’s death at the age of 60 she was given virtual state funerals in both cities.
BET director-writer Jackie Taylor clearly recognized that the key to a successful musical biography of Jackson resided in finding the right actress-singer in the title role. Taylor successfully climbed that artistic mountain by casting Robin DaSilva in the title role (the full title of the show is “Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light”). DaSilva bears a striking physical resemblance to Jackson and she has the Jacksonian belting voice to handle the show’s powerful gospel songs. Just as important, DaSilva captures the previously mentioned dignity and sincerity that epitomized Jackson in real life. If DaSilva was intimidated by the role it doesn’t show on the BET stage. Her performance is authentic, a star turn that is never stagey or forced.
The audience first meets Jackson shortly after her death. The perplexed Mahalia finds herself in the presence of three ethereal characters collectively called the Masters, apparently assigned to be Jackson’s guide through some quasi mystical afterlife that they insist is not heaven but “the House of the Lord.” The “Moving Thru the Light” of the title is an element in her journey that eluded me. Jackson wants to meet God directly but the Masters state that it will take several lifetimes for her to reach the Lord (how a deceased person can go through several lifetimes is never explained and the Masters seem unclear on details of the journey, but no matter).
During the show, we get snippets of biographical information about Jackson, starting with her hard scrabble childhood in New Orleans under the tyranny of a religious zealot aunt. Jackson moves to Chicago as a teenager to start a new life away from her oppressive existence in New Orleans. By the late 1930’s she was making a name for herself as a gospel singer. Jackson had a fairly uneventful personal life, the greatest difficulties coming in her bad luck with men. She married twice, both husbands being abusive losers. The one true love of her life died of cancer before they could be married. She had no children.
The story basically provides the connective tissue that unites the musical numbers that are the evening’s big payoff. The score is a blend of traditional gospel numbers, originals composed by Taylor, and even a few secular songs in the gospel tradition, like the Rodgers and Hammerstein “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “I Believe,” initially popularized by pop singer Frankie Laine. Jackson refused to sing nonreligious songs or perform in settings she considered offensive to her religious sensibilities, though she did record with Duke Ellington and his orchestra and appeared in several motion pictures, but never in her mind violating her religious beliefs. Jackson always rejected the idea that she was the “Queen” of gospel and placed her religious faith ahead of any notion of celebrityhood.
DaSilva handles the bulk of the singing, capably assisted by the three Masters, consisting of Dwight Neal, Stewart Romeo, and especially Cynthia Carter, who delivers more than one vocal star turn of her own. A chorus of six is placed behind a scrim and periodically offers comments as talking heads high above the stage. They finally make a combined entrance at the end of the show, heightening the hallelujah atmosphere in what turns into a vocal gospel jam session, concluding, naturally, with a rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The chorus deserves to be named individually—Clara Flaherty, Brandon Lavell, Lorriane Lewis, Colleen Perry, Rose Marie Simmons, and Levi Stewart.
The pace of the show is perhaps a little too measured, though the always reliable jump band led by Robert Reddrick manages to inject welcome moments of instrumental energy. Ben Lambrecht’s set design evokes the celestial atmosphere the show tries to create. His design is abetted by Denise Karczewski’s atmospheric lighting, and abetted by uncredited costumes of a classical Greek look plus David Samba’s sound design.
The BET show rightly concentrates on Mahalia Jackson the singer, her life lacking the dramatic touches of black musical stars like Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. Powerhouse singing has always been the strength of these original BET explorations of African American musical culture and this show can be counted among the more successful of the company’s endeavors, thanks primarily to matching Robin DaSilva with the music and personality of the great Mahalia. For that noble combination, we can only say Heavenly and Amen.
The show gets a rating of
“Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light” runs through April 14 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. March 2019
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