‘Mahalia!’ on tap for UpStage

A lot of Hollywood offers came Mahalia Jackson’s way, but she never wavered.

Singing the blues was out of the question, no matter how much Bessie Smith inspired her in childhood. Mahalia reserved her talent for God.

Many will remember seeing her in the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.” But her role was as a soloist with a gospel choir in a funeral scene.

So even then her music praised the Lord.

“And those are some of the things in the story of ‘Mahalia!,’” Ava Brewster Turner says.

Turner is the founder and director of UpStage Theatre, which will open Tom Stolz’s musical “Mahalia!” on Feb. 15 in the Louisiana State Police Training Academy Auditorium.

This will be the third time since 2011 that the theater company has performed the musical.

“Then we brought it on the road to the Acts Theatre in Lake Charles, and we reprised it when we returned to Baton Rouge,” Turner says.

Now UpStage will kick off its 10th anniversary season with “Mahalia!.”

“We’re calling this our Encore Season,” Turner says. “The audience has spoken, and we’ve listened. They’ve told us their favorite plays from our past seasons, and we’re performing them this season.

“‘Mahalia!’ was dearly loved, and it sold out each time we performed it, so a lot of people who wanted to see it missed out.”

There are a few changes to the production this time around.

“We have two ministers in the show,” Turner says. “The Rev. Jon Bennett will appear in the Feb. 15 show, and the Rev. Isaiah Webster will be in the show on Feb. 16.”

Stolz’s story is told through Jackson’s narration, beginning with her childhood in New Orleans, where she was born in 1911.

“She was living with her strict Aunt Duke,” Turner says. “She was inspired by the blues singer Bessie Smith.”

When Jackson moved to Chicago in 1927, her dreams had shifted to nursing.

“She wanted to do good for people,” Turner says. “And she knew she could do that through nursing. She talks about getting a job at a hair salon while working in Chicago, then singing in church.”

Chicago also was where she met songwriter Thomas Dorsey, called the Father of Gospel Music, incorporating blues and jazz into the genre.

She and Dorsey toured together, with Jackson singing his songs.

She also would perform his best-known composition, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

This led to her monumental Carnegie Hall performance and eventually a European tour.

Jackson died in 1972.

“But she was an icon,” Turner says. “She stayed true to her beliefs.

“She had so many offers from Hollywood, but if it wasn’t gospel, she turned them down. Today, she’s known as the Queen of Gospel. And that’s what she was — what she still is.”

Tremaine Sanders will portray Jackson.

Oonarissa Brown-Bernard will be the only returning cast member from UpStage’s previous production. She played Jackson’s assistant Mildred in 2011. This time around, she’ll be playing Aunt Duke.

“She lives in Houston now, but she’ll be returning for the Sunday show,” Turner says.

But it’s the music that keeps the audience coming back.

“Everyone loves the music,” Turner says. “It’s strong and inspiring, and it’s why people keep coming to this show. It’s why they wanted us to bring this show back. And it’s why we’re opening our season with ‘Mahalia!’”