Jackie Taylor, the founder and leading light of the Black Ensemble Theatre, has spent her career penning and producing biographical musicals recounting the lives of prominent African-American musicians, most of whom are associated in some way with Chicago. These shows are always packed wall-to-wall with classic tunes, passionately sung by a cast of terrific singers and backed by an impressive band.
The Black Ensemble’s current show, focusing on gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, follows this formula exactly. For two hours, the gospel hits keep coming: “How Great Thou Art,” “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and “Didn’t It Rain” are just three of the hits Robin DaSilva belts out in her superb impersonation of Jackson, accompanied by an ensemble of nine other fabulous singers and a superb band lead by music director Robert Reddrick.
Along the way, Taylor presents biographical material about Jackson. This too follows the Taylor formula, and as in previous productions, these theatricalized book reports prove to be the weakest parts of the show. Taylor packs the play with factoids about Jackson—born in New Orleans in 1911, moved to Chicago in 1927, worked with Thomas A. Dorsey, often called the father of gospel music, who wrote the hit “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” which became Jackson’s signature song—but it never shows us the person behind the show biz personality. This, too, is part of Taylor’s formula: we almost never hear a discouraging word about the subjects of her shows.
Instead, as in Black Ensemble’s many previous musical biographies, Taylor is content to let the music carry the show. v