If only this show were a concert. Not a play. Not an historical drama. Just a plain old concert, with an energetic gospel choir and the audience clapping along. Every few songs, an emcee could come out and say a few words about Mahalia Jackson, The World's Greatest Gospel Singer. What a great night that would be! Whatever your musical or religious persuasion, dear reader, you might want to watch Mahalia Jackson: Standing on Holy Ground, now playing at Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
But Kuntu has made this a play. Vernell A. Lillie, Kuntu's artistic director, has asked a small army of amazing singers to act -- a skill that is clearly not their forte, nor is it necessary. Mahalia Jackson isn't a drama, or even a musical. It's a gospel revue with some wincingly terrible scenes inserted. These scenes, when coherent, tell Jackson's life story.
Lillie, who wrote Mahalia Jackson, writes in her program notes, "I am not a playwright." So why, then, is she writing plays? Suppose I, a humble theater critic, tried to direct a gospel choir. I can't read sheet music. I'm not a musician. I'm not even technically baptized. What would I expect of this venture? Probably a discordant mess.
Luckily, Mahalia Jackson has a brilliant musical director, Deryck Tines, and as the titular superstar, Lorraine Jackson-Berry was a divine force last Saturday night. (Other nights, Jackson is played by Twyla Glasgow.) Every voice is sensational, and as the young Mahalia, Imani Wilkerson is an absolute joy to watch; during intermission, audience members insisted she audition for American Idol ... although given her skills, I hope Wilkerson has nobler aspirations.
Gospel fans will love Mahalia Jackson regardless: It is a rare chance to hear the art form in a secular setting, and nary a classic is spared. If Jackson sours at the end, it's because no Kuntu show ever seems to end. The final ovation blends into a talk-back, the audience corralled into an awkward conversation with the performers. Of all music, gospel can speak for itself. And that's the God's honest truth.
Mahalia Jackson: Standing on Holy Ground continues through March 12. Kuntu Repertory Theatre, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-8498 or www.kuntu.org