.Theater: Transcendence

‘Mahalia Jackson’ explores the power of faith

By David Templeton

“Sometimes,” exhorts actress Sharon E. Scott, stirringly embodying the rich voice and sassy-sweet attitude of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “Sometimes, God turns your life upside down—so you can help turn things right side up.”

In the sensational, heartbreaking and soul-lifting biographical theater piece Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am—running through January 24 at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma—Scott takes what might have been a straightforward story of an American church singer who became an international star, and creates something much richer than mere biography or impersonation.

In a show that runs just over two-and-a-half hours, Scott—who wrote and directed the show—turns Mahalia Jackson’s tumultuous life upside down and sideways, singing nearly 30 of Jackson’s most memorable songs and hymns, all while giving us a sense of Jackson’s vibrant, indomitable style and personality. Simultaneously, she leads her audience through one of America’s most dramatic and moving social evolutions—the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

With first-rate musical direction by Tammy Hall, who accompanies on piano, and assisted on stage by John Shillington in a variety of roles, Scott’s tribute to Jackson sometimes feels a tad overstuffed, as if she were reluctant to leave any part of the story out. But just when the show seems to reach the full-to-the-brim point, Scott launches a series of emotional climaxes that are nothing short of stunning, transforming the show into a tribute to the power of faith. Not just faith in the religious sense, but faith in the power of the human soul to transcend impossible obstacles.

Known in her time as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson had the power to turn even non-believers into full-fledged gospel music fans, and with a voice as rich and full of emotion as a full-on Sunday service with lunch served afterwards, Scott makes her audiences believe by showing us how Jackson did it. In addition to the Florida-based performer’s committed musical performances of songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” she turns out to be a first-rate actor, attacking the many storytelling portions of the play with a luscious, laid-back warmth and depth of feeling that might make you believe you are being addressed by the real Mahalia Jackson.

In the second act, when Jackson’s friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. is described, the play reaches a new plateau of dramatic tension and lyrical creativity. In one achingly gorgeous sequence, Scott intersperses verses of the song “The Lord’s Player” with snippets of her own conversations with Dr. King. The power of the sequence is electrifying and deeply moving.

Shillington proves an equally energetic force, playing recognizable and obscure figures from Jackson’s life—various promoters, a frighteningly racist policeman and even the great performer Danny Kaye. Most notably, as Jackson’s lifelong friend and supporter Studs Terkel, the legendary radio personality and interviewer, Shillington serves as a kind of narrator, setting up the story, and finishing with a breathtaking eulogy to a true American original.

Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am is a must-see, as moving as it is ambitious, as inspirational as it is eye-opening.

NOW PLAYING: Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am runs through Sunday, January 24 at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Fri.-Sat., 8pm.; Sunday matinees, 2pm; $25-$35; 707/763-8920; cinnabartheater.org.

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