When Mahalia Sings
Don’t miss two of Providence’s finest gospel singers in a production based on the life of Mahalia Jackson, When Mahalia Sings.
Written and directed by Jonathan Pitts Wiley, artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket, the production tells her story through haunting songs and humor, from her early years in New Orleans to her emergence as an internationally known star and civil rights leader. The production was also staged last year at Veterans Memorial Auditorium as part of a celebration of what would have been Jackson’s one-hundreth birthday.
The production begins with a wide-eyed Jackson (Lydia Cooper) making a train trip to Chicago as a teenager. She encounters Louis Armstrong (Amos Hamrick Jr.), who owns the club car, and tries to convince her to join his band. But Jackson has always believed that God was calling her to sing. “I like my music to be filled with the holy spirit,” she tells Armstrong. She tells Armstrong she doesn’t do jazz or blues, which her aunt considered “indecent music.” Armstrong tells her at one point that “you’ve got to be righteous, but you’ve got to be smart, too.” But Jackson would hold firm to her convictions and refuse to sing secular music throughout her career.
Through a series of detours in time throughout the production, we learn that Jackson had problems with her legs growing up, that her father was a minister, but she went to live with an aunt after her mother died. Her aunt would beat her with a switch if she didn’t clean properly. Once in Chicago, Jackson cleaned and did hair, started singing in churches and began touring with Thomas Dorsey, known as the father of gospel music. She gets a big break when she learns that Chicago scribe Studs Terkel wants to put her on the radio. She also falls for and marries a man named Ike, whom she would later divorce.
Jackson’s emergence as a civil rights leader comes after she learns of the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who visited relatives in Mississippi, reportedly whistled at a white woman, and was murdered and dumped in a river. “That mess in Mississippi opened the waters. The way I see it, I’ve got to do my part, just like everybody else,” Jackson says. In 1963, Jackson (who is played in her later years by Barbara Bryant) appeared at the March on Washington, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and Jackson sang “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”
The production ends with Jackson’s final years. The music throughout is moving, and it’s also very funny in parts. If you missed it before, catch it now.
When Mahalia Sings is playing at Trinity Repertory in Providence through July 1. For tickets, go to trinityrep.com or call 351-4242.