By Ian Rigg
“It’s easy to be independent when you’ve got money. But to be independent when you haven’t got a thing — that’s the Lord’s test.” – Mahalia Jackson
Black Ensemble Theatre’s Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light is a musically transcendent tribute to a gospel icon, that packs quite a philosophical punch.
After her death, world-renowned Mahalia Jackson finds herself not in heaven, but the House of the Lord. In this metaphysical realm, she is guided through the afterlife by enigmatic and golden-voiced beings in a test—has she earned enough knowledge that her soul may pass on, or must she return to Earth to live yet another life? Mahalia Jackson sang the Gospel like none other—but how did she live it?
Director and writer Jackie Taylor conjures up an evolution of the informative and introspective revue through this ethereal, simple, clever setup. The convention allows audiences not only to learn about a legend by skimming around to impactful moments in and around Jackson’s life (from her escape from an abusive childhood, to her inspirational relationships with iconic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK) but also allows for organic, resonant moments along the way. Most importantly, it allows Jackson to speak for herself. And of course, sing for herself, the audience, and whatever powers lie beyond.
Bek Lambrecht’s set design evokes something ancient, ornate and everlasting, and hides levels behind a cosmic scrim to allow all the action to take place in the timeless, well-painted ring of untold eras, and imply that there are levels even further beyond our comprehension in life or afterlife. Denise Karczewski’s lighting design conjures stage portraits with a heavenly glow, and clever spotlights behind the galactic scrim allow for an otherworldly chorus to shine through, literally and figuratively.
Under the crackling musical direction of killer drummer Robert Reddrick, Clara Flaherty, Brandon Levell, Lorriane Lewis, Colleen Perry, Rose Marie Simmons and Levi Stewart make an immaculate cast of Guardians, soloists, choir and assorted characters and manifestations.
The acting is allowed to be intimate, reflective and poignant. And as an astute director, Taylor wisely lets the music take center stage. Because Good Lord, does it reverberate through the rafters.
Cynthia Carter, Dwight Neal, and Stewart Romeo shine as The Masters, the angelic-esque (it’s complicated) beings who shepherd Jackson through her reflections. In perfect harmonic, comedic and dramatic lock-step with one another, each is also a stellar soloist in their own right: Carter’s otherworldly power and terrific tone, Neal’s resoundingly soulful tenor and Romeo’s charming and achingly beautiful baritone are a joy to behold.
But this show simply could not reverberate across the cosmos without its crown jewel, a masterclass performance from the truly remarkable Robin DaSilva as Jackson. She fully embodies all the thoughts, fears, losses, loves and revelations of a seemingly inimitable singer. Her performance is naturalistic, and immaculately felt and lived. Every breath leaves emotional echoes. And her utterly astounding vocal, which blows off the roof, can scarcely be described: it must only be lived.
For living is a test, regardless if it gets graded. The answer is to be tender to one another, and to let love and music win, always. Because with powerhouse performances and the music icon’s trademark “joyful noise,” Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light will remind any audience what a gift it is to be alive.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “Mahalia Jackson: Moving Thru the Light” through April 14, 2019 at Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More informaion and tickes are available here.