Mahalia Jackson came from humble New Orleans beginnings. Her 13 family members shared a three-room house in Uptown. But she went on to achieve international fame as one of the greatest gospel singers ever. Jefferson Performing Arts Society recently offered a musically rousing production of Tom Stoltz's Mahalia! A Gospel Musical at Teatro Wego, and the show goes on the road for a performance in Biloxi.
Growing up in a strict environment, Jackson stuck to gospel music and kept a safe distance from what her drill sergeant of an aunt called "devil music." That should have kept her away from earning money and fame as well, but after scrimping and scraping for years on the gospel circuit, she caught the attention of some eminent musicologists. Not long after, she played a concert at Carnegie Hall, where she got so carried away she sang some verses on her knees. Then came her own radio show and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Under Troy R. Poplous' direction, the cast at Teatro Wego performed with brio and enthusiasm. There was very little dialogue, and no songs grew out of the narrative, but 21 gospel tunes were sent joyfully heavenward by Danielle Edinburgh Wilson, accompanied by either co-star Jay Van Hall or musical director Albinas Prizgintas. Video projections of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and scenes of the brutality meted out to civil rights protesters provided some context for her later years, but in quantity also extended the evening longer than necessary. These events stirred Jackson, who traveled the South to perform for the protesters, but the images underscored a basic problem with the script: We learned very little about Jackson herself. The production offered plenty of her music and charm, but there was not much in the way of conflict or revelation. — Dalt Wonk
Mahalia! A Gospel Musical
Directed by Troy R. Poplous
Starring Danielle Edinburgh Wilson, Vickie Thomas and Jay Van Hall
7:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 27
Biloxi Saenger Theatre, 170 Reynoir St., Biloxi, Miss., (228) 435-6291; www.jpas.org