Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In Mahalia Jackson: Just as I Am, currently in production at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, singer Sharon E. Scott sings her heart out to make sure the world doesn't forget the hard life suffered and tremendous contributions made by the singer they called "The Queen of Gospel." It's clear from the first moment she steps on stage that Scott both loves the music and respects the woman who rose to fame and then used her new-found pulpit to fight fiercely for equality and civil rights.
Unfortunately, she is let down by the writer and director of this piece, who has provided her with no clear story arc, sense of character progression, or compelling dialogue or any real dramatic heft. Even more unfortunate is that Ms. Scott herself is that writer/director, so she has only herself to blame for failing to exploit her clearly deep talents as a performer.
The show careens through time, beginning, as so many biographical paeans do, with the death of the subject. We see then-WFMT radio personality Louis "Studs" Terkel reading the wire report, then reminiscing about the interviews he conducted with her. Soon, Scott appears and we hear of her childhood privations and her introduction to music. Along the way she sings some lovely gospel tunes, far more than ably backed up by the amazing Tammy Hall, a Bay Area jazz/blues/gospel pianist who matches the power of the songs and Scott's voice with her own formidable chordings and fills.
If only Hall's magnificent playing and Scott's powerful yet tender voice (and charming and hospitable stage presence) were enough to overcome the foundational faults of the play. They're not. While there is a terrifically powerful scene in which Mahalia is driving in Mississippi in her lavender Cadillac and is pulled over by a bullying cop, and a moving moment when she collapses in grief at the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rest of the show is only an anemic attempt at drama.
Additionally, except for his role as the racist highway patrolman, John Shillington (who plays a range of male characters) is generally insubstantial and ineffective at overcoming the inherent weaknesses of the text and his roles in it. Then there's the bland, monochromatic sets, the cheesy projections and titles, the uninspired lighting, the clichéd writing ... it all adds up to a clattering wreckbut one with great music and a friendly driver.
In the play's defense, I will say it got a mostly sincere standing ovation on opening night. Tammy Hall and Sharon E. Scott the entertainer deserved the cheers. Sharon E. Scott the writer/director, however, should instead be praying for inspiration for a rewrite.
Mahalia Jackson: Just as I Am runs through January 24, 2016, at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35 general, $25 for those 21 and under. There is an additional 8:00 p.m. show on Thursday, January 21. Tickets and additional information are available at www.cinnabartheater.org or by calling 707-763-8920.