Longtime patrons of Black Ensemble Theater are probably familiar with the post-curtain speech sometimes heard there. “Going to Black Ensemble is just like going to church — because there’s a donation basket in the lobby.”
But their latest show — no joke — is a spiritual experience. Since it’s about the Queen of Gospel, that’s exactly as it should be. In “Mahalia Jackson: Moving Through the Light,” writer/director/BET founder Jackie Taylor imagines an afterlife for Jackson that’s not exactly heaven (or so we’re told), but where the music is heavenly. It’s lighter on the biographical details than some past shows, but it does a gorgeous job of capturing the emotional resonances of Jackson’s performances and making it clear why she became a star, despite her steadfast refusal to perform secular music.
In Robin DaSilva, Taylor’s found a terrific vessel for Jackson’s soul. That soul is caught in a sort of waiting room in the “house of the Lord,” but not yet in the presence of the Almighty. With the help of three “masters” (played with wit and full-throated choral strength by Cynthia F. Carter, Dwight Neal and Stewart Romeo, who tackles the wide-eyed young-soul role with glee), as well as assorted other spiritual doulas, Jackson revisits key moments in her life.
The premise is that by revisiting her memories, she’ll gain the knowledge she needs to move on up to the next plane and be with God. And naturally, those memories lead to soul-stirring renditions of gospel classics such as “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which became perhaps her best-known song and which Aretha Franklin performed at Jackson’s funeral in 1972.
The theology is a little fuzzy at times — just what knowledge does Mahalia need to gain about herself before she can see God? We get retrospective glimpses of her life, but there are chunks that are missing. Born out of wedlock in New Orleans as Mahala Jackson in 1911, she lost her mother at a young age and was raised by a strict “spare the cat’o-nine-tails, spoil the child” aunt who treated young Mahala as a servant more than a niece, let alone a surrogate daughter. (This aunt was also named Mahala, which may explain why Jackson added the “i” to her name as a way of distancing herself from that legacy.)
She eventually escaped to Chicago, where she met Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel and music director for the landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church. Dorsey’s own tragedy — he lost his wife in childbirth and their baby a couple of days later — inspired “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
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Source: Chicago Tribune