Sunday, March 05, 2017

An Honour and a Privilege

Well, Dearly Beloved, the curtain comes down on For the Love of Mahalia tonight.

It has been an honour and a privilege to work on this show.  Cast and crew have been unfailingly helpful and cheerful, and actors have been very patient with costume elements not appearing until the last minute, and with hats and dresses that need adjustment.

We have a couple of nice reviews, which I will post in full, as well as provide links, as links go dead after a while.  The first, from Broadway World, reads as follows:

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.
The reviewer was there at final dress, which was a Murphy's Law of a night if I ever saw one.
Another review, this time from Central Texas Live Theatre:
Several theatrical productions in town now, on stage or just closing, give or claim to give important messages about activism, resistance, gender, and race relations in America in our current time of turmoil. Perhaps the clearest and most moving of these activist guidebooks is about to pass under the radar, but it is not to be missed by anyone. For the Love of Mahalia sings its vibrant song at the Boyd C. Vance Theatre at the Carver Center for one final weekend.The show focuses on the life of gospel/soul singer Mahalia Jackson (played by Jacqui Cross), and of course it is a thrilling musical. The show was written by local playwright Robert King, Jr. and directed by Roger Thomas. Production is by the brand new RKJB Entertainment Company.  

(photos via RKJB Productions)
(photos via RKJB Productions)

 Mahalia Jackson is one of the most intriguing background figures in modern history, particularly of the Civil Rights Era, not so long ago.  She sang gospel songs to huge crowds in Europe and America, all and only to the glory of God.She placed her powerful faith in Him to help her people get over there. Much is meant by the phrase “over there,” as described in the play.Its meanings of equality and civil rights came to the fore in her support for Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Robert King Jr) and Ralph Abernathy (played by Jeremy Rashad Brown) of the Civil Rights movement. She hosted their kitchen table Bible studies and counseling sessions in her home in Chicago. MLK, especially, relied on her. The story is told of the 1963 March on Washington where he expressed his doubt that he could even speak to such a throng, the image of them around the Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument being so overwhelming. Mahalia Jackson leaned out of the group of dignitaries on the dais with MLK and said (paraphrasing): “Tell them about your dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.” So inspired, MLK found his voice and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches of any kind in the twentieth century.  
 For the Love of Mahalia centers on 1965 and Julie Matthews (Marett Hanes), a young college graduate in journalism. She goes on a quest of sorts to interview Mahalia Jackson (Jacqui Cross), about whom little is known in the popular press. Jackson was extremely personable, easy to find if anyone could afford travel tickets to Chicago. Without giving anything away, it can be written that Julie wrote much about Jackson but discovered far more about herself. Julie’s story is an updating of the story of Baby Moses, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Daughter.  
 The songs of Mahalia Jackson are given equal weight with the narrative story by and about Julie Matthews. They are sung by Jacqui Cross as Mahalia, with one duet with Ms. Cross and Marett Hanes. Bessie Smith (Sonia Moore) sings in flashback one of her powerhouse 1920s torch songs, attired in an authentic 20s flapper costume. Credit goes to Veronica Prior for all the 20s and 60s costumes, and Jennifer Gross deserves much credit for the period-perfect wigs and hairstyles.  
 The well-produced theatrical march across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma in March of 1965 highlights the exceptional video design of the play, with gut-wrenching archival photographs of the actual police riot by Alabama state troopers that broke up the march, killing one. The staging of the march in For the Love of Mahalia is superior to that of the same event in a vastly better funded theatre across town.  
 As a musical, For the Love of Mahalia is essentially a star vehicle for singer Jacqui Cross. Ms Cross is a veteran of several Zach Theatre musicals and is a founding member of the relatively new Spectrum Theatre Company. Ms Cross is a worthy bearer of the musical legacy of Mahalia Jackson, and this is not an overstatement.  
 In every good play there exists a corner of the plot inhabited by a character who throws all the other characters into sharp, clear relief. In For the Love of Mahalia, that corner and that character is inhabited by Frank Benge as Mr. Banks, the cigar chomping, whiskey swilling, cursing, slovenly editor of Image Magazine. Julie Matthews seeks him out to pitch her article on Mahalia Jackson. Mr. Banks says nothing but “no” to her, yet somehow he manages to send her out on her quest, thus impelling the story. Benge (Death and the MaidenThe Suicide, countless other stage presentations) embodies with glee the character of Mr. Banks.  
 Stage management was by the very efficient Taylor Moessinger (The Great American Trailer Park Musical), but certain annoying sound and lighting glitches lay beyond her control. Specifically, one of the props was a metallic or glass-bottomed food tray. The tray reflected the scenic lighting as large, wiggly figures onto the scrim upstage. They continued to wiggle and distract throughout the scene in Jackson’s Chicago home. As we are into the last weekend of the run and the error has not been caught, the insufficiency approaches inexcusability.  
Still and all, For the Love of Mahalia is the best recent theatrical call to social activism, keeping its eyes on the prize of racial justice in America. Mahalia Jackson always sang from her deepest heart, and so does For the Love of Mahalia.  The show runs until March 5th, 2017 at the Boyd C. Vance Theatre in the Carver Center in east Austin.  
I have to say that I don't really like the slightly snarky comparison of our show with one produced by another Austin Theater.  This is not a competition.  This is two different playwrights, each with something to say about events from fifty years in the past and how they relate to the present.  We all have different visions, as well as different budgets, and we all do the best we can with what we have to work with.
I can only say, "Thanks, y'all, for letting me play!"

No comments:

Post a Comment