“Mahalia” (The Life and Music of Mahalia Jackson), Black Ensemble Theater, at the South Shore Cultural Center. The ballroom-size theater at the South Shore Cultural Center may seem spartan to Black Ensemble fans accustomed to the company’s cozy north-side facility. But the cavelike acoustics of the Paul Robeson Theater only magnify the power and exultation to be found in writer-director Jackie Taylor’s most recent musical revue. Written especially for a Park District-sponsored series, Mahalia looks at the life and musical legacy of Mahalia Jackson, the artist credited with introducing secular vocal styles to the sacred-music genre.
The details of Jackson’s biography can be found in print, but LaTonya Beacham’s portrayal of “Sister ‘Halia” embodies and celebrates a faith steeped in the sheer sensual joy of singing. Flanked by the protean Senuwell Smith and Jacqui Thomas, Beacham belts out glory-to-God numbers ranging from the haunting “Soon I Will Be Done” to the jubilant “I Got Over,” along with a showstopping rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. Mahalia’s text might bend the facts a bit, but on the night I attended, several people personally acquainted with Jackson–notably Studs Terkel, who featured her on his radio show throughout the 30s and 40s–heartily endorsed the spirit of the show.
–Mary Shen Barnidge