Mahalia Jackson, the greatest gospel vocalist and one of the finest 20th-century singers of any genre, had a rags-to-riches life. She grew up poor in New Orleans, but even after she had achieved fame and performed at the world's top concert halls, she never lost sight of her humble roots. Nor of her desire to sing the gospel. When record companies wanted her to cross over into the jazz, blues and pop realm—become an Ella Fitzgerald or a Dinah Washington—Jackson didn't stray from her true passion.
"I'd rather sing about old man Jesus than some old man some woman done put out," she once said.
Bravo to her. But truth be told, those women who sang about the put-out men make for better bio-musicals. Sinners are more interesting than saints.
Jubilee Theatre's theatrical tribute to Jackson, The Gospel Queen, would be just fine if it did not attempt to add a forced narrative into Sheran Goodspeed Keyton's concert of Jackson songs heard more than a year ago at Fort Worth's McDavid Studio. Keyton has obviously studied the vocal inflections and phrasing of the gospel great—and there's no question she has an amazing, compelling voice. That should be enough for a larger showcase of this important African-American legend, a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and an even closer pal with the God to whom she devoted her life.
But The Gospel Queen, which is conceived and directed by Ed Smith, needs tuning.
The show opens with a young girl, Shelly (13-year-old Catherine Blake), playing Jackson's records. She's excited that her musicologist father—talk about forced—is taking her to see her idol at Carnegie Hall in 1958 (in real life, Jackson's big Carnegie show was 1950). For most of the musical's 90 minutes, it's Keyton singing Jackson's best-known songs, including How I Got Over, Precious Lord, Come Sunday and Trouble of the World, deftly accompanied by pianist Joe Rogers. These segments are hand-clapping heaven. Keyton even conjures the idea of being "in the spirit" without ever making The Gospel Queen feel more like church than theater. That's some feat.
It doesn't really matter that the character doesn't have much to do other than what she does best: sing. Keyton has previously proven she can act the hell out of roles based on real singers like Bessie Smith in Empress of the Blues at Jubilee Theatre and Ma Rainey in The Butterfly Connection's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Plea to producers: Let her play Pearl Bailey or Big Mama Thornton.) If The Gospel Queen were simply a recreation of Jackson's Carnegie Hall concert, terrific.
The material with the other two characters (Bill Haas plays the father) is unnecessary and precious, in the negative connotation of that word. Blake's rendition of St. Louis Blues at the top of the second act is impressively sung for someone so young. But the acting makes one wonder why Smith didn't find a late-teen or early '20s actress to play Shelly, as he successfully managed earlier this year in The Bluest Eye.
The Gospel Queen needs a time out for some reworking. Then hopefully, for the better, it will be born again.