BWW Review: FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA - Jacqui Cross Thrills As The Queen Of Gospel
Fledgling theatre company, RKJB Entertainment's production of an original work by Robert King, Jr, FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA, currently playing at the Boyd Vance Theatre, has problems, but ultimately its message is poignant and important.
Mahalia Jackson, born in New Orleans in 1911, rose from poverty to become the voice of American gospel music. She staunchly refused to sing secular music, choosing instead to use her powerful voice in service to her beliefs. FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA mixes real events and fictitious characters to tell the story of Jackson's life and her pivotal involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Julie Matthews (Marett Hanes) is a young journalist looking for her first big break. While her mother Lily (Linda Myers) wants her daughter to be a housewife, Julie pursues magazine editor, Mr. Banks (Frank Benge) who dismisses her as a bothersome girl. She hits upon the idea of an interview with Mahalia Jackson (Jacqui Cross), who is a friend of her mother's housemaid Ruth (Kendra Franklin). Paying her own way from Montgomery, Alabama to Chicago, Julie meets the legendary singer and they become fast friends. We soon meet Martin Luther King, Jr (Robert King, Jr), Ralph Abernathy (Jeremy Rashad Brown) and Coretta Scott King (Kiarra Hogan) as Julie becomes involved in the struggle to end segregation and achieve equal protection under the law. The play with music is punctuated by Jackson's moving songs and a show stopping number from blues icon Bessie Smith (Sonia Moore).
FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA has enormous potential as an important voice in the continuing struggle for civil rights that has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. The production has problems but none of them are the fault of the performers. As a child of the 1960's I vividly remember hearing Mahalia's stirring voice on television and I swear that I saw her reborn through Cross' performance. Her portrayal is deeply heartfelt and her unmatched vocals gave me chills. Sonia Moore's rendition of Bessie Smith's Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer is fabulous in every way. As Martin and Corretta King, Robert King and Kiarra Hogan are warm and loving in their depiction of the civil rights leaders. Frank Benge is wonderfully irascible as Julie's boss, Mr. Banks, barking at her and picking his teeth with one of her submitted stories. As the young writer, Marett Hanes is perky and sweet but lacks the depth of the nuanced characters surrounding her. Music director and pianist Mattie Robinson deserves top marks for her performance and getting the absolute best performance from every song. Costumes by Veronica Prior are excellent, especially the beaded flapper dress for flashback with Bessie Smith. In general the script is uneven, sometimes lacking focus on what gives the best moments. A musical style song and dance with Julie and Ruth seems oddly out of place in a show that is obviously not a musical. Direction by Roger Thomas fails in providing a transitional thread between scenes, creating a choppy feel in a show that deserves so much better. Lighting by Ashley Sandal is haphazard, often leaving actors in the dark and the color scheme is questionable at best. The use of projections is powerful throughout the performance, the images are well chosen and evocative. All in all it's easy to overlook faults when Jacqui Cross sings, she truly embodies Mahalia's hope that her music could "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country".
I recommend FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA for the pure joy of seeing Jacqui Cross give an utterly brilliant performance. Robert King's play may need work before it can be the momentous endeavour it has the potential of becoming, but it is certainly powerful in its current incarnation. I for one, will be watching RKJB Entertainment, their future looks very bright indeed.
FOR THE LOVE OF MAHALIA
by Robert King, Jr
The Boyd Vance Theater, 1165 Angelina Street, Austin 78702
February 23rd - March 5th
Thursdays - Sundays at 7:30 PM
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $20 - $15, fortheloveofmahalia.brownpapertickets.com