Gospel truth: Just As I Am: The Life, the Times, The Voice of Mahalia Jackson

If you’re interested in hearing some superb gospel singing, don’t miss Sharon E. Scott in Just As I Am: The Life, the Times, The Voice of Mahalia Jackson.

But the title is misleading: in fact, Scott’s script leaves out huge chunks of Jackson’s life and times, leaving audiences pretty much uninformed about more than a few important events in the great vocalist’s biography. Not that it matters too much: the attraction here is Scott’s soulful, stirring singing, which would be phenomenon enough even if there were no accompanying play.

With songs like “Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain,” “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and “There Will Be Peace In The Valley,” Scott proves once again that she’s an area treasure, a super-talented actor/singer who possesses deep reserves of spiritual honesty, and great charisma to boot. So what if we hear next to nothing about Jackson’s two failed marriages, about most of her encounters with racism, about her movie appearances? Just to hear Scott sing “We Shall Overcome” is reason enough to be glad you saw the show, and “There Is No Color Line Around the Rainbow” speaks volumes about the civil rights struggle.

And certain key experiences are here: the loss of Jackson’s mother when she was still a child, her first successes as a gospel singer, her participation in the John Kennedy inauguration, her friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And she’s not the only character: Steve Garland plays various parts, from her promoter Jimmy Reid to her atheist friend and radio personality Louis to a Southern cop who hassles her and steals $200.

True, Garland doesn’t do enough to distinguish one character from another (with the exception of the crooked cop), and Scott’s script too often has him fawning on Jackson, as if we needed to be constantly reminded of her unique talent. But as directed by Bob Devin Jones, Scott makes real contact with the audience, and Ozanda W. Gray Jr. provides impeccable piano accompaniment. The uncredited set — a few pieces of furniture backed by a semi-circle containing three video screens — is far too mundane for its subject, but, again, Scott’s performance is so splendid, it’s possible not to notice.

If Just As I Am were nothing but a concert, it would still be worth attending. Consider the “drama” an added extra; and sit back and enjoy.

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