Mixed Magic Theatre and Trinity Repertory Company celebrate the life and legacy of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in When Mahalia Sings.
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, Mixed Magic’s Artistic Director, wrote and directed When Mahalia Sings, and this production is truly top-notch. The Mahalia portrayed on stage is a dynamic, living portrait of a woman who used her gift of song as an instrument of praise and lent her voice as a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.
The play follows Jackson (Lydia Angel Cooper) as she journeys to Chicago by train. She encounters “Satch” – Louis Armstrong – and his band in the club car, and this setting serves the narrative well; Mahalia’s story unfolds in a series of well-paced vignettes as she interacts with the characters on the train.
Music infuses each aspect of the production, tracing Mahalia’s humble beginnings and abusive childhood to her prominence in world of Gospel music and her significant role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The second act song “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Songs” is a fitting summation of the entire show; the Mixed Magic company truly succeeds in conveying Mahalia’s genuine, uncompromising approach to her life and art.
Though the show tells Mahalia’s story, the entire ensemble does the storytelling. This cast brims with talent and professionalism. Cooper is a gifted vocalist, fiery, endearing and full of enthusiasm; her portrayal of Jackson is nuanced and honest. Barbara Bryant plays Sissie/older Mahalia, and she is an absolute treasure. Bryant’s powerhouse voice is both commanding and comforting; she captures Mahalia’s vehement passion for life and also her reverence for the message of her music.
Amos Hamrick, Jr. is charming and endearing as “Satch,” and he and Cooper work well in their scenes together, balancing challenging exchanges about racial tensions and issues of faith with moments of playful banter. Kim Pitts-Wiley shines in multiple roles and ably handles comedy and tragedy throughout the production. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” is especially moving. Favorite gospel hymns – “There Will be Peace in the Valley for Me,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (among others) – resonate with both joy and sincerity when the entire group comes together in song.
When Mahalia Sings is a brilliant evening of theatre: powerful, uplifting, thought-provoking and not to be missed.
Mixed Magic Theatre and Trinity Repertory Company present When Mahalia Sings: A Journey with the World’s Greatest Gospel Singer. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. When Mahalia Sings plays TRC through July 1, 2012. General admission tickets are $28 and discounts are available for students, seniors, military and groups of 15 or more; contact the box office for more information.
Barbara Bryant as Mahalia Jackson. Photo courtesy Mixed Magic Theatre.