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Bernardine Mitchell being what is commonly referred to as a “force of nature,” casting her as Mahalia Jackson pretty much instantly makes Mahalia, a Gospel Musical an occasion. Mitchell is a full-figured, full-voiced contralto, whose pixieish sense of humor is never entirely overshadowed by her statuesque presence and commanding voice. Give the lady a solo to belt and sure, she’ll rock the rafters, but give her a line with even a smidgen of comic lift and she’ll send it soaring just as high. In the opening stretches of Mahalia, she’s playing the legendary Queen of Gospel as an adolescent princess and needs little help from Tom Stolz’s script to get laughs when a blues-averse aunt catches her singing brightly along with a Bessie Smith recording. Later, when a prayer is answered almost before she has a chance to look heavenward for assistance, her “That was quick, Lord” pretty much brings down the house. That level of conflict, by the way, is about all that Stolz works up for the character. The real Mahalia may have suffered through two divorces and worked as a laundress and beautician to make ends meet, but the stage Mahalia doesn’t have an offstage life after she leaves New Orleans for Chicago at 16. Rather, she moves from singing triumph to singing triumph—on tour with “Father of Gospel Music” Thomas A. Dorsey, on her own at Carnegie Hall, on a European tour, and in celebrated appearances with Martin Luther King Jr. during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and at the 1963 March on Washington. A recording success early on, she’s pictured at MetroStage as a cheery philanthropist, forever dispensing cash from a roll of bills hidden in her ample bust, supporting civil-rights causes with both her checks and her voice. The scenario may not be fraught with personal drama, but in Carol Mitchell-leon’s briskly efficient staging it offers reason enough for the star to belt spirituals and gospel tunes in a voice that seems to deepen throughout the evening. Supporting her—both vocally and at two onstage keyboards—are music director S. Renee Clark, who is, herself, possessed of a stirring voice and bright comic timing, and William Hubbard, who seemed a little uncertain of his lines on opening night but nonetheless delivered a nice reading of King’s “I have a dream” speech. Design elements are fine, too, including relatively unobtrusive miking of performers who seem perfectly
capable of raising the roof without