Keep the Faith

The Black Rep's Mahalia preaches to the choir.

If you're a character in a play and you pray, is that crank-calling God? Maybe it depends on the actor's intentions, or the staged outcome of the prayers. In the case of Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, the prayers and heartfelt renditions of gospel music prompted fervent hallelujahs from audience members, who clapped and sang their way through this musical history lesson.

Presented by the Black Rep as the kickoff to its 30th season, Mahalia follows the life of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson from her teen years in 1920s New Orleans through her move to Chicago, her success as a gospel singer and her involvement in the civil rights movement. It's straightforward Sunday-school fare, with Mahalia bearing witness to the power of God every step of the way. Unfortunately, her faithful life doesn't make good drama, at least not in the hands of playwright Tom Stolz, who spends too much time describing and not enough time showing. For example, the dictum "Gospel music is good news in bad times" is repeated again and again, but there's never a scene in which we see gospel music actually lift someone up.

The liveliest moments come when Mahalia (Roz White Gonsalves) butts heads with any of the characters played by Pamela D. Mallory. Whether she's playing Mahalia's aunt or her accompanist, Mallory's sharp-tongued responses to Mahalia's even-tempered disposition create much-needed moments of comic conflict. The most dramatically successful scene occurs at the end of the play, when Mahalia, facing death, momentarily loses sight of God. There were audible sighs of relief in the audience when the spotlight (that would be God) finally shone. Gonsalves does a fine job moving from the teenage energy of young Mahalia to the weary world traveler she has become by the end.

While it's billed as a "Gospel Musical," it would more be more accurate to call Mahalia a "Gospel Concert." Either way, the musical elements work. The show features eleven negro spirituals, along with music by Kenneth Morris, T.A. Dorsey and W.H. Brewster. Gonsalves' rich contralto easily mimics Mahalia's, and it was clear from the audience reaction that her singing struck chords of recognition. Mallory lends her fine voice to several of the gospel numbers and accompanies Gonsalves on the piano. In addition to singing and playing piano and organ, music director Malcolm L. Speed portrays all the men in the show and delivers Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech with accuracy and passion. Acting coach Linda Kennedy has done admirable work with both Speed and Mallory, who differentiate the various characters they play with specific vocal and physical choices.

Director Ron Himes keeps the show moving with quick transitions, aided by the lighting design of Jim Burwinkle, who also designed the simple set — oversize album covers as backdrops, with various platforms and chairs representing the multiple locations. Costume designer Andre Harrington keeps the clothing simple and accurate, saving his best for Mahalia's final costume, a snow-white gown and sparkling crown.

Mahalia celebrates Jackson's solid faith. There are no questions in her life that cannot be answered quickly and directly by God. Therefore, there are no questions raised by this production — it's literally preaching to the converted, affirming a specific belief system about how God works in the world. Of course, if you're going to a show called Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, you've probably already signed on to the implicit contract of faith. But this would be a meatier and more intriguing piece of theater if it explored faith as a journey, with stops and starts and occasional wrong turns. As it stands, we've got angel-food cake for those who've already feasted on certainty, which leaves the seekers or skeptics to leave hungry.