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The Mahalia Jackson Musical : a gospel icon’s legacy

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts and Copa de Oro Productions will be presenting the world premiere of The Mahalia Jackson Musical, starring the legendary Ranee Lee as Jackson, from March 3-24.
Written and directed by Montreal’s Roger Peace, the musical will showcase the life and career of Mahalia Jackson, tracing her days as both one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and a human rights activist, culminating with a re-creation of her captivating performance in front of 250,000 people at 1963’s March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.
Portraying powerful women is nothing new for Peace, who established his name by capturing the spirit of former female show business greats like Billie Holiday, Etta James and Judy Garland.
The inspiration to focus on Jackson first came about 10 years ago when he was handed a collection of her music. Six years later, he started writing the script.
“After listening to her music I started to think that it might make an interesting show, but it sat in my head for a few years,” he told Les Actualités.
At first, Peace struggled to find the direction of the show.
“When I wrote about Piaf and Billie Holiday and others there was a lot to write about - drugs, prostitution, alcohol - and all sorts of stuff. But Mahalia was squeaky clean,” he said.
Eventually he found what the focus had to be: her music.
“That’s her real legacy, her music. So I zeroed in on that, with a few monologues and stories about her and the whole thing started to take shape,” explained Peace.
Some of the music featured in the play will be classics such as “Summertime” and “Down by the Riverside.” Lee will be accompanied by Montreal jazz favourite Taurey Butler and NDG’s own Tristan D. Dalla, who plays all the male characters in the show, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackson’s uncle, cousin and husband.
Dalla performed in his first show ever a decade ago at the Segal Centre, when he was fresh out of theatre school. “To be back so close to home, where I got my start - it’s a very comfortable feeling.”
While Lee will be channelling Jackson in her grand Washington performance, Dalla will be delivering the historical «I Have a Dream» speech in his role as Dr. King.
“It’s pretty iconic stuff, and of course very humbling. It’s really an amazing experience,” he said when asked about that closing scene.
According to Peace, the musical ends there for a reason: “I want the audience to leave on a high point, and that moment in Washington was Jackson’s highest point,” he said. “She thought that it was the reason that God had put her on earth, to help forward the civil rights movement.”
The Mahalia Jackson Musical runs March 3-24 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, 5170 Côte-Sainte-Catherine Rd.

Jesse Feith
Photo: Jesse Feith

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