The legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is the subject of the current show at Baltimore’s Arena Players. Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see this homage called, “The Gospel Songstress.” It continues at Arena Players through June 8.
The Rousuck Review: "The Gospel Songstress"
The most unexpected aspect of “The Gospel Songstress” – a new play by Randolph Smith about Mahalia Jackson – is that Mahalia is not a character.
Smith – who also directed this Arena Players production – focuses instead on three fictitious sisters: Sadie, Flossie and Hilda Thibodaux. He imagines the Thibodaux sisters as a former vocal trio. The sisters grew up with Mahalia in New Orleans, which is where the play takes place.
They take Sadie Thibodaux’s granddaughter, Halie, under their wing after her mother’s death. The sisters share their wisdom about life, faith and especially the girl’s namesake -- Mahalia Jackson.
Of course, there’s lots of music incorporated into the life story of the great gospel singer, who sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and two years later, at Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.
The sisters reminisce and provide plenty of examples of gospel classics, including Kenyatta V. Hardison’s interpretation of one of Mahalia Jackson’s signature hymns.
Hardison’s character, Hilda, also explains that Mahalia Jackson – quote --“brought the blues into the church.” She also brought jazz, and when Monique Jones, as Flossie, leads the trio in “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” an insistent jazz beat blends with the fervor of the traditional spiritual.
We learn that as a young woman, Mahalia would sing while she worked. Hardison and TiaJuana Rountree, as Sadie, mime ironing while Jones leads them in song.
Although the ostensible point of the play is to teach Halie about Mahalia Jackson, we glean only scattered details about the late singer’s life. She was born with bowed legs; her mother died when Mahalia was a girl; she was raised by an aunt; and she was divorced twice.
In one of the tenderest scenes, the sisters re-enact Mahalia’s baptism, at age 15, with Halie standing in for teenaged Mahalia.
But there’s also an extraneous scene in which Sadie goes on and on about a childhood spat with Hilda involving a doll. Nor does it seem possible that Halie would be completely unfamiliar with the institution of slavery – another subject they teach her about. Halie’s age isn’t specified, but she’s played by Simone Amani Speed, a talented 18-year-old student at Morgan State University.
Halie gets the show’s penultimate song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Simone Speed sings it with conviction. This is apparently an indication that Halie has inherited Mahalia’s mantle – or at least learned from her devout example.
As is frequent practice at Arena Players, several roles are double-cast. The performers I saw all displayed strong, assured voices. This was especially evident because the musical director didn’t arrive until part way into the second act; the vocalists did just fine singing a capella or with only a drummer providing accompaniment.
“The Gospel Songstress” is the final play in Arena Players’ 60th anniversary season. The script needs honing. But there is considerable compensation in hearing four actresses “making a joyful noise unto the Lord,” as Mahalia Jackson described her calling.
-- J. Wynn Rousuck