BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
I Will Move On Up a Little Higher. Didn't It Rain. In the Upper Room. Take My Hand, Precious Lord.
Sharon Scott grew up hearing these songs and many others performed by Mahalia Jackson on the radio and records.
"Mahalia has always been a part of my life,'' Scott says. "My grandma used to wake up on Sunday morning to cook dinner for church. She'd be in the kitchen with the pots and the pans, and the only music she'd let in the house were spirituals and gospel. So Mahalia and her would have a concert in her kitchen every Sunday. I always felt like she was a part of our family.''
Jackson, who brought gospel music out of the black church to reach a vast audience from the late 1940s until her death in 1972, was born in New Orleans and is buried there. Nine years ago, Scott and her husband, Marque Lynche, were in New Orleans on their honeymoon. Scott, a popular singer and actor in the Tampa Bay area, was thinking about writing a play about Jackson.
"We went in search of Mahalia and found her grave,'' she says. "I went and had a little talk to her, and made a couple of promises, and here we are.''
Mahalia, Just As I Am, Scott's new show about Jackson, opens this week at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg. Scott, with pianist Ozanda Gray, will perform Jackson's hits and tell her story.
"Mahalia was more than a singer,'' Scott says. "She had great influence in the community politically. She was a grand friend of Martin Luther King Jr.''
In fact, Scott says, it was Jackson who prompted King to give his most famous speech. In 1963, at the civil rights march on Washington, King was wrapping up his comments when Jackson, seated at the podium, shouted out, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin,'' and the rest was history.
There have been other shows about Jackson. Sing, Mahalia, Sing is probably the best known, but a 1985 production starring Jennifer Holliday didn't have much success.
"What they did (in Sing, Mahalia, Sing) was kind of a concert with stories inserted,'' Scott says. "I wanted to do it the other way around. I wanted to tell a story with music. It's more book than music.''
Scott's play, directed by Bob Devin Jones, has an actor (Steve Garland) who plays multiple roles, including a longtime friend of Jackson's, a concert promoter, Danny Kaye and a Mississippi motorcycle trooper.
Still, the show features Scott performing 22 Jackson favorites, from Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho to This Little Light of Mine, songs made for her bluesy style.
"There's something about the tone of Sharon's voice, the timbre of it, that gets inside of you and rattles around,'' said Jones, who directed Scott in two plays by August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean and King Hedley II, at American Stage.
"I want to give you the essence of Mahalia,'' Scott says. "I'm round and brown, that's a start. I adore gospel music. But I sound like Sharon. I'm not trying to copy Mahalia.''
Mahalia, Just As I Am does seem like an ideal marriage between artist and material, and Scott is passionately committed to making it a success. She and Jones are already talking about possible productions in Washington and New York.
"I want to be able to tell Mahalia's story concisely and in an enriching and uplifting manner,'' she says. "I don't have kids. So this is my baby. I want to nurture her and watch her take her steps. I want to watch her grow. I want to watch her be acknowledged and then I want to watch her walk away sturdily into somebody else's arms.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.