Gospel, the musical form that arose at the turn of the century with Pentecostal revivalism in African-American churches, has had a lasting and profound effect on American music during its century-long evolution. While rhythm and blues and soul took off from gospel roots, gospel itself has retained its identity and purpose as sacred music. And it continues to offer a richness of feeling and religious insight to those who come to listen. Gospel music forms the core and circumference of Mama, I Want to Sing, now in a splendid production at Eulipions Cultural Center, and even when the music glides gracefully into pop, gospel reasserts itself as the plentiful source of inspiration for the play's subject, a true-life singer-songwriter named Doris Troy.
This work by Vi Higginsen and Ken Wydro changes a few minor details of Troy's life, but the basic story remains the same--and it bears a significant resemblance to the lives of other great black singers such as Aretha Franklin and Della Reese. As the show opens, a disc jockey introduces us to the main characters and sets the stage: a radio retrospective of Doris's emergence into the music world. He begins in 1953, when twelve-year-old Doris (here called Doris Winter) is welcomed into the church choir to the great delight of her minister father and her mother: It is clearly an honor for one so young. Doris is ecstatic, and here she learns the discipline of choir singing under a strict choirmaster.
But during his sermon the following week, her father, Reverend Winter, dies suddenly of a heart attack. Doris is devastated, but her father has left her with the gift of music--a composer himself, he has encouraged her to follow her dream. And at age seventeen, to her mother's chagrin, Doris does: She wins a prize at the Half Note Club (really the famous Apollo Theatre) with her group, the Halos, and the four singers set off on a long and arduous tour that takes them away from their gospel roots but propels them into modest fame and fortune. Troy's "Just One Look," which hit the pop charts in 1963, was ultimately recorded by eighty different groups, we learn, and by the time she retired, she was successful enough to open a daycare center for single mothers, a senior center and a school for gifted children.
Director Ken Grimes has double-cast several important roles in this demanding show. One night thirteen-year-old Chelsea Harris sings Doris's role; the next it's seventeen-year-old Ta Gana De Cluette. Both young women have big, powerful voices housed in small frames, and both are phenomenal. They also have their own distinctive styles: While Harris is still developing her already considerable technique at this point, De Cluette is a mature artist. When she sings in a free-form gospel style, taking off in fabulous flights of virtuoso fancy, you have to realize that this is no ordinary talented youngster. She knows what she's doing as she fries the low notes and leaps ecstatically (and instantaneously) to the high, with full, glorious tones in between.
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The role of Doris's mentor and friend, Sister Carrie, is also double-cast, and Juanita Pope and Robertta Johnson are each spectacular. They're terrific comediennes, too, again with very different styles. Johnson exudes a wry, quiet wit that's also endearing and sweet. Pope takes an earthier tact as an actress--a little brasher, a little sexier, yet still warm and kind. Johnson has the more developed singing style, perhaps--highly controlled and very beautiful. But Pope is no slacker, either, contributing a big, bright, gutsy performance that offers an alternate kind of pleasure.
Dwayne Carrington, who has directed some of Eulipions' best work (Black Nativity, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery), takes the role of Reverend Winter with marvelous authority and grace. And Mary McNeil-Jones is hilarious as Mama Winter--especially when she gets exasperated with Doris for going out on the road. But better yet is her singing style--a sophisticated gospel/blues delivery that begins with fire-in-the-belly gravel and ends with the full-blown pure tones of an outstanding contralto.
There is so much to admire and take delight in here that the few weaknesses in staging seem irrelevant. The main thing is the music, and as the silky DJ who emcees the show says, "The music is the message."
Mama, I Want to Sing, in an open-ended run at Eulipions Cultural Center, 2425 Welton Street, 295-6814.