In the late '50s and early '60s, television was sated with singers. Pop stars and opera divas followed one another on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason. On any evening, baritone Robert Merrill or soprano Roberta Peters from the Metropolitan Opera would be followed by pop idols like Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, old-timers Kate Smith, or the newest of the new, The Beatles. It was quite a musical education. But of all the talents on display, none made a deeper impression on this impressionable Pennsylvania boy than Mahalia Jackson. She was a force of nature, a wonder to behold.
Usually dressed in choir robes, her hair swept up into a crown, this monumental black woman was exotic personified, from another world. The sound that came out of her – always spirituals, hymns old and new, or roof-raising gospel – was like none other. It was splendidly deep and resonant, boomingly rich. If Mount Vesuvius could sing, I thought curled up in front of the mammoth RCA console with the small screen, it would sound just like this mighty woman. And most strange of all, she sweated when she sang. Her neck was bedewed in perspiration. I'd never seen that before from a singer, not on TV anyway. She would sway as if entranced, overcome by the holy message. And her diction was precise, clipped and syncopated, filled with endless variation and rhythm. The glorious music poured out of her, the voice of God.
I've admired Jackson ever since. In my ear, no singer could ever quite capture her particular, peculiar soulful aura. So it's about time we have a play about this distinctive star whose entire repertoire extolled “good news in bad times,” as she defined gospel music. Inspirational self-help writer Tom Stolz has finally put this earth mother onstage. Unfortunately, his bio, aptly named Mahalia (2010), is neither deep nor very soulful.
Ably abetted by a quartet who parlay diverse characters from her life, from Martin Luther King (Andre' Neal nails Dr. King's old testament prophet oratory) and her pianist manager, Mildred Falls (Crystal Rae, fluttery and comic), to omniscient observers, parishioners and confessors (Dorothy A. Lastice and Larry D. Cooper Jr.), Jackson (Asia Craft, in a spellbinding vocal performance) is center stage most of the time, singing her heart out in prayerful tribute.
What happens between the songs – and the play uses a jubilant, effective catalog (“Hand Me Down Yo' Silver Trumpet, Gabriel”; a much-too-short rendition of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”; “Highway to Heaven”; “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”; “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) – is little more than filler. We see her hard life in New Orleans with her fanatical Baptist Aunt Duke, who prohibits young Mahalia from listening to the devil's music of Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. After baptism, lovingly staged, her fate is sealed. Soon the girl's off on the northern migration to Chicago to sing in a choir, and from there, though it’s not the smoothest of paths, Jackson rises higher and higher in the music world: sheet music sales, recordings, radio broadcasts, Carnegie Hall recital, European tours, the voice of the civil rights movement, TV stardom, awards and citations, icon.
Does Stolz ever detail her personal life? No. He tells us she always suffered stage fright and stuffed her money in her bra and suitcases; that's it for insight, though played for needed laughs. He also doesn't mention her two marriages, her successful business ventures, her philanthropy, her professional assistance to up-and-coming artists. We know all about her abiding faith, that's built into her vocals, so when that's all the digging we get, it's a letdown for sure.
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At least we have Craft, who channels Jackson with uncanny precision. With no help at all from the playwright, she overlays her Mahalia with unshakable conviction, sweet innocence and love of justice. There are times under Kris Phelps's lighting when Craft, soft cheeks aglow, actually looks like who I remember from those prehistoric days in front of the TV. Naturally, no one could possibly match the original, but Craft is on the far side of paradise. Hearing her is worthy of praise and clapping of hands.
The great strength of Mahalia lies in the music, of course, and the ensemble knocks the barnacles off these great old hymns. Melanie C. Bivens rocks the piano from backstage as musical director, while director Shirley Marks Whitmore keeps the flow of history as scenically tuneful as the numerous numbers.
Ensemble Theatre shakes mightily in celebrating one of the great American voices and great Americans. I wish Jackson had a better play in which to awe us with her prodigious talent and rock-solid faith. At least it's got the music down. Hallelujah!
Performances of Mahalia are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through February 26 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $36-$61.