“Mahalia, A Gospel Musical” is so much more than a biographical musical about the great Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel. Full of the gorgeous church hymns and old spirituals she sang with her tremendously soulful and powerful voice, it does, indeed, tell the story of her rise to fame in the 20th Century. But in so doing, it also elucidates a crucial piece of American history.
For this reason, it’s a wonderful selection to kick off Face Off Theatre Company’s fifth season and as a celebration of Black History Month in Kalamazoo. With powerhouse performances and simple but terrifically effective technical choices, this production is unforgettable.
At its center is Christie Coleman, who brings to life Mahalia Jackson with a depth of joy so convincing it’s hard not to believe it — as well as her astoundingly rich and resonant voice and miraculous phrasing — comes straight from God, just as Mahalia herself believed and proclaimed.
In the play, Mahalia often narrates her own story and talks to God, receiving guidance on her life’s major decisions that take her from New Orleans to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1927 at 16; from the Baptist Church into the recording studio; to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Washington D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; to Carnegie Hall and the Ed Sullivan Show and JFK’s inaugural ball; and to her beloved Holy Land, among other extraordinary places, particularly for a woman of color in that time.
Playwright Tom Stolz’s telling of her remarkable life story leaves out much of her personal life, including her marriages and health issues, but in so doing, it more clearly maps her life onto the larger civil rights history of her time — and is nicely paced between scene and songs, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet, Gabriel,” “Deep River,” “Elijah Rock,” and “We Shall Overcome,” among others, many of which inspired members of the opening night audience to sing and sway along.
In addition to Coleman’s superb performance, she is joined on stage by Ryan Singleton, who, as well as co-directing with Marissa Harrington, gracefully plays four different roles including a stern pastor, Mahalia’s cousin, her accompanist, and composer Thomas Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music. Khadijah Brown brings delightful humor and realness as Mahalia’s sidekick and partner in crime Mildred as well as her forbidding Aunt Duke. These three make magic together, doing wonderful improv when needed, creating gorgeous harmonies, often a cappella, and absolutely losing themselves in the music as an invitation for the audience to do the same.
Erwin St. Rose plays Dr. King, and looks the dapper, handsome part of the 26 year old leading the nonviolent charge, though his delivery of powerful, well-known speeches doesn’t even attempt the resonant cadence of perhaps the greatest orator who ever lived. However, his presence is felt and known.
As is the excellent accompaniment by Xu (Jack) Zeyu on the baby grand piano stage right. He comes and goes without fanfare, and his passionate playing beautifully supports Coleman’s singing.
With few set pieces, the action moves through time and various places and spaces with Sam Snow’s careful lighting and sound. The wigs and costumes, too, help delineate time and class, and there’s just enough choreography to keep things moving without distraction in this musical that’s really more a play with music.
“The surest path to the soul is through the heart,” Dr. King says about what Mahalia Jackson’s singing taught him, and Face Off’s production makes real his claim. It not only touches the heart, but it also reaches the soul in a way that does justice to civil rights history in America and would undoubtedly make the Queen of Gospel herself proud.
Face Off Theatre