Gospel music has grown and changed a lot over the years, but singer Tarra Conner jones said that audiences are going to “hear the real deal” in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “How I Got Over: A Tribute to Mahalia.”
This original musical revue honors the music of Mahalia Jackson, who became known as the “Queen of Gospel,” and others from the 1940s through 1960s, who focused on a natural, soul-stirring sound.
“Gospel music of today is more pop or it teeters on that edge. You don’t hear this kind of gospel anymore, the kind that will get you to throw your hand up when you didn’t mean to. It’s that kind of music,” said jones, who returns to Sarasota where she previously was seen in “Black Nativity” and last fall’s “The Color Purple.”
Jones stars with a large cast that includes Neyce Pierre, Ariel Blue, Earley Dean Wilson, Brian Boyd, dancers Derric Gobourne and Josh Thompson, as well as the show’s creator and director, Nate Jacobs.
In addition to Jackson, the musical touches on such gospel stars as Shirley Caesar, Thomas Dorsey, the Caravans, Albertina Walker and Dorothy Love Coates.
For about a decade, jones said, “I thought I was going to be the next Mahalia Jackson in gospel music. She was the benchmark. Growing up in the African-American church in my grandmother’s house where she listed to and sang gospel music, I heard a lot of gospel music.” Jackson had a rich, contralto voice, and jones said she was somewhat disappointed that she herself was more of a true soprano. “But I learned to manipulate my voice, to give it that sound, and now it’s interesting to be doing a show about that music. Those are my roots. I studied classically. I’ve done Broadway style music, jazz, big band, but my roots are in gospel music and the church.”
Jacobs said that the music emerged in the churches where African-Americans could get a “total release of the pressures of life. Singing in church was refreshing.”
At some point, Jacobs said he will create a modern gospel-style show, but for “How I Got Over” he wanted to focus on the traditional gospel artists, like Jackson, “who was one of the key people who lifted the ceiling for gospel artists to go international. That music and genre began to touch the heart of the world.”
Jackson was born in 1911 in New Orleans and began singing in her church as a child, and by the time she was a teenager, she was touring with various church gospel choirs. She spent many years working with composer Thomas A. Dorsey, considered the Father of Gospel Music, who provided her with songs, arrangements and guidance. He wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which became Jackson’s signature song.
Despite pressure from various promoters and producers, Jackson stuck to her principles and faith and refused to sing secular music.
She was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall and won praise from critics and audiences when she began touring Europe. She also became active in the Civil Rights Movement, performing in a concert during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. In 1963, she sang “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned” before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And she has been credited with encouraging King to improvise parts of what became known as his “I Have a Dream” speech by calling out for him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
“She was raw. There was no pretense to what she did. To see her perform is almost like watching a mad woman with a mic,” jones said.
Jacobs said Jackson’s musical delivery was unique. “She was unlike any other. There are some people that are just gifted, gifts to the world, like a Whitney Houston. You hear that voice and you know it comes through only once in a lifetime.”
There’s not really a story to the show, aside from a narrative thread of how “this music played apart in the cultural experience of African-Americans and that touches on the human experience,” said Jacobs.
Boyd, a newcomer to the troupe, serves as the narrator for the show, which features choreography by Donald Frison. The cast also includes Victoria Byrd, Jeffery Cason Jr., Elaine Mayo and Topaz van Wood.