‘Mahalia’s’ story is thin, but singing is rich

Published: November 08, 2009

African American Repertory Theatre has begun its residence at Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse with “Mahalia,” Tom Stolz’s 1993 musical biography of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.


As in previous local productions of the play at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, “Mahalia” features the powerful singing of Cora Harvey Armstrong in the title role.


Unfortunately, AART’s take on the work is lackluster. It’s a three-actor piece, with Armstrong supported by Billy Dye and Rochelle Turnage playing several characters each. They’re supposed to accompany Armstrong on piano and organ, but recorded music is used for most of the numbers, which makes the songs less immediate than they might be.


This just serves to emphasize the flimsiness of Stolz’s script. Jackson lived a fairly interesting life — born in 1911 in New Orleans, she moved to Chicago at 16 to study nursing and became the queen of gospel music. Stolz focuses on her career highlights — her association with gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey, her touring and recording successes, and her landmark concert at Carnegie Hall. He gives us a strong sense of her religious faith and her support for the civil-rights movement. But he leaves out her marriages and shows mere caricatures of her relationships with a cousin, an aunt, a pastor and a pair of accompanists.


There’s not much drama in the play, as Stolz has Jackson narrate most of her own story directly to the audience. L. Roi Boyd’s direction does little to overcome these weaknesses. There’s a simple set and basic lighting, some flashy costumes designed by Maura Cravey and enthusiastic performances by Dye and Turnage. There were lighting and set mishaps on opening night, as well as numerous flubbed lines.


It’s not much of a play, but Armstrong is an amazing vocalist and the Jackson songs are moving. “My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real),” “It’s A Highway To Heaven,” “How I Got Over,” “Didn’t It Rain” — each is an affecting showcase for the star. Though she appeared to be battling a cold on opening night, her singing voice was beautiful and strong.
Susan Haubenstock is a Henrico County-based freelance writer and editor. She can be contacted at shaubenstock@gmail.com.


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