“Mahalia” – a grand signature production of Hansberry-Sands

By Taki S. Raton

Sandra Renfro, plays the role of the legendary Mahalia Jackson in Hansberry Sands Theatre Company’s local production of ‘Mahalia’.

“Mahalia” for me was definitely musically informative and historically stimulating,” says Milwaukee entrepreneur Willie Smith.

Smith was among the audience members who nearly filled to capacity the 484 seat Friday, April 22 opening of “Mahalia” at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall, 123 East State Street.

This 30th – year anniversary production of the Hansberry- Sands Theatre stands signature tradition reflective of work staged by this esteemed Milwaukee based ensemble.

“The play was magnificent,” says Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors chairman Lee Holloway.

“The performers were so excellent in their respective roles that I was virtually time locked into each phase of Mahalia’s life. It was almost as though at points during the play that I felt that the stage and the audience were one,” he adds.

Written by Tom Stolz and directed by our own Willie Abney, “Mahalia” through superbly fashioned script and song over two acts exquisitely transports the audience through significant periods of her life.

“It is fantastic,” says Pamela Lewis, founder of the graphic art service Designs Around You. “The singing is great, the choir is great and Mahalia is just awesome. The story line is true to form. The play brings back the soul in your spirit.”

“This play was great and I encourage everyone to go and see it,” says area educator Frederick Dakarai. “As a history teacher, I was able to follow the sequence of our past through each portion of the play,” he adds

Dakarai shares that being born in 1969, he did not know then the historical significance of Mahalia Jackson.

“I only saw her picture on the back of the fans in our church and was not made aware of who she was until much later in life. As a result of this Hansberry-Sands production, I will make sure to include a detailed lesson of Mahalia in my class this coming school year.”

Born Mahalia Jackson October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, she rose from historically challenged beginnings during the Jim Crow era to become the first gospel singer to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall 39 years later in 1950. She would begin her European tour in 1952 and was acclaimed by critics as the “world’s greatest gospel singer.”

Over her illustrious 44-year career from 1927 to 1971, Jackson recorded for three labels, Decca Coral, Apollo, and Columbia. She began a radio series on CBS and signed to Columbia Records in 1954. “Down Beat” music magazine noted in its November 17, 1954 edition that “It is generally agreed that the greatest spiritual singer now alive is Mahalia Jackson.”

“The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer” was her debut album for Columbia recorded in 1954 followed by a Christmas Album titled “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in 1956 and in 1961 Jackson was invited to sing at U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. She was the recipient of three Grammy awards while with the Columbia label – 1961, 1962 and in 1972 with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mahalia Jackson was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 being recognized for her 1947 recording single “Move On Up A Little Higher” on the Apollo label. The Grammy Hall of Fame was established in 1973 to honor artists whose recordings are at least twentyfive years old and lends a “qualitative or historical significance.” The U.S. Postal Service honored Jackson with her postage stamp issued July 15, 1998.

Sandra Renfro was absolutely stupendous in her star role as “Mahalia”. Supported by an outstanding cast, Renfro graciously carried the audience through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a magnificent life journey.

“I studied her. I watched her every gesture, how she moved her head; how she commanded the stage,” said Renfro in a recent interview. “When I was out in the lobby greeting the audience at the end of our performance on opening night, I was still so much into the character that I was even then still trying to separate myself from my role. I had become ‘Mahalia’. I am just so thankful that I have been blessed with the opportunity to bring her back to life. We definitely have to bring our history back, especially for our children,” she adds.

Known nationally for her vocal talents and stage productions, Renfro’s acting and styled singing skills are a perfect match for her role as Mahalia. The late CYD founder Jenetta Robinson appropriately referred to Renfro as the “Song Bird of the Midwest”.

KarenWiesner-Peterson is expressively delightful in her engagingly supportive casting as “Mildred,” Mahalia’s piano accompanist. Peterson earned her B.F.A. degree from Howard University and was classically trained in Shakespeare at England’s Oxford University.

Native Milwaukeean Rodney Cunningham was superbly hilarious as “Frances”. His unique and most believable characterization of Stevie Wonder kept the audience in excitefull laughter throughout the evening. Larry Reed’s presence as Thomas Dorsey and his most masterful display of baritone vocals shares a reflective period image mirroring the dignity and esteemed determination to victor over the imposing circumstances facing Black people during that late 1920’s era.

Sheila Kitchens stands strong and every-Black-family- believable as “Aunt Duke” who raised Halie, Mahalia’s nickname, after her mother died in 1917. Assuming a trio of roles, Michael Carter distinctively displays his exquisite range of talents as “Cousin Fred,” “Pastor,” and “Male Reporter”.

And a quick shout-out to Waunda Elson and again to Larry Reed, both of whose energy and enthusiasm were quite prominent in the chorus line adding spiked inspirational impulse moments of hand clappn’ and foot stompn’ gusto.

Willie Abney was brilliantly exceptional in his Act Two opening adaptation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” address. Serving as artistic director for the Hansberry- Sands Theatre Company, Abney has been an active contributor to and supporter of Milwaukee’s performing arts community for over 26 years.

His many contributions to Milwaukee’s arts have been recognized over the years to include being named a nominee and finalist for the 2002 Milwaukee Art Board “Artist of the Year” distinction. In 2005, he received the prestigious Milwaukee Times Black Excellence Award. And in that same year was the recipient of a Special Congressional Recognition “For Outstanding and Invaluable Service to the Community” from Congresswomen Gwen Moore.

Just recently, Abney received the Gerald Wallace Lifetime Achievement Award presented at the March 26 HAAT luncheon. HAAT (Historic African American Teachers) is an organization founded by Vicki Singh to honor pioneer African American Milwaukee public school educators. The HAAT presented award narrative, in part, speaks to Abney’s masterful genius with Black theater:

“We recognize your years of service as a historic African American artistic director and as actor in Wisconsin. A man for all seasons, we salute your determination to provide historically rich theater in the city of Milwaukee. Whether a play written by a nationally known playwright or one of our own Gerald Wallace, you have taken it and made it your own. We acknowledge your quest for authentic expression on stage which makes you one of the finest theater directors in Wisconsin. You have created a legacy within the theater of which Gerald would be proud. We honor your ability to gather up the courage and wisdom to make each performance by your company a lasting memory for all to share.”

Scheduled performances this coming weekend at Vogel Hall are Saturday, April 30 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and on Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets at available at the Marcus Center Box Office, 929 North Water Street and at Readers Choice Bookstore, 1950 North Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.

For additional information, please call the Hansberry-Sands Theater Company Hotline at (414) 616-7529.