When Mahalia Jackson started singing in Pentecostal churches in Chicago, preachers didn’t know what to make of her. The songs in her heart weren’t traditional hymns. They had a swing to them, influenced by the jazz and blues records she snuck and listened to at home in New Orleans. However, their skepticism didn’t stop her. Jackson’s foot-stomping, hair-swinging style of gospel singing eventually carried her to some of the most prestigious stages, including the Apollo Theatre, Carnegie Hall and a European tour. Even with all the fame, Jackson was always performing for an audience of one: Jesus.
The show stars Atlanta native Maiesha McQueen, who was recently on Broadway in the musical Waitress. McQueen makes Jackson’s songs her own, not trying to mimic the singer’s voice, but still capturing her spirit. McQueen finds her groove in the middle of the first act during “Didn’t It Rain,” and stays there through the end of the show. She is a powerhouse vocalist who literally took the audience to church on opening night.
The weakest link in this production is Tom Stolz’s limited script, which isn’t helped by Patdro Harris’ uneven direction. Stolz started developing the musical in 1993, and the book was published in 2010. In the first act, a young Mahalia narrates her life story from growing up in the Crescent City to getting discovered and going on tour with the Johnson Singers in Chicago. The first half of act one has a lot of flimsy narration that doesn’t reveal more about the singer than a lazy Google search. Then, about halfway through, it becomes a jukebox musical that doesn’t touch on her marriages, children or financial issues.
The second act is mostly about her admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. and support of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a complete tonal switch, but this is also where Lawrence Flowers’ musical direction and McQueen’s talent coalesce. McQueen hits all the right notes in “God Is Real,” “How I Got Over” and “Precious Lord.”
It’s a good thing, because Harris doesn’t have anywhere to go with this script. Harris has helmed standout productions in Atlanta, including Fly and The Royale at Theatrical Outfit. But, in this show, the actors play upstage too much, there are traffic jams with the ensemble getting offstage, and Jackson’s reflective moments between the musical numbers get lost. The piece is written for three people, but Harris adds a six-person ensemble and focuses on their choreography more than on Jackson’s story.
That said, if it’s a jukebox musical you want, this is giving it. The entire cast can absolutely sing. Kudos are due to Shameka Dwight, who plays Jackson’s longtime accompanist, Mildred. Dwight’s voice and piano playing are absolutely magnificent. Dathan Thigpen is also a magnetic presence onstage as Cousin Fred and gospel artist Thomas Dorsey.
One of Jackson’s internal struggles was about keeping close to God in the face of fame, fortune and a philandering husband. To put it plainly, Jackson often prayed not to be led into temptation. Often with stories about heroes, especially when they’re gospel greats, there’s a temptation not to tell the whole truth. Unfortunately, Mahalia falls into this trap. This musical and others like it are so focused on maintaining a saintly image that they don’t reveal the Egypt that the children of Israel were delivered from.
Jackson’s life and legacy have been the subject of much fascination lately, especially with the announcement of a biopic starring Jill Scott, footage of Jackson in the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul and the release of the NAACP Award-winning film Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia on Lifetime.
Jackson’s life and devotion are worthy of more than a scan. There is not testimony without a test, and perhaps if the questions on her life’s exam were further revealed, then others would be inspired to understand why Christ was her answer.
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Kelundra Smith, an ArtsATL Editor-at-Large, is a critic and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, ESPN’s Andscape, American Theatre and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.