If you go to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s summer production How I Got Over: A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson expecting a look at the life of the late great gospel singer, you will be disappointed. Her name is not even mentioned until about 15 minutes into the show, which was created and adapted by artistic director Nate Jacobs, and we learn virtually nothing about her personal or professional existence.
But probably 90 percent of WBTT’s audience won’t really care about that. They’ll just be happy to revel in the plethora of gospel songs performed here, making it a compilation of music tied to Jackson and her spirit.
There is a narrator (Brian L. Boyd), presenting a little bit of pretty obvious background about gospel’s importance to African-Americans who had been transported to this country from their homeland and its rhythms and forbidden to communicate in their traditional ways. And, with the setting of a church and later a picnic, we also get to hear a fired-up preacher (Earley Dean) and meet members of his congregation, most notably perhaps two women (Ariel Blue and Tarra Conner jones) who both believe in the Lord but have a bit of a competition going on when it comes to praising Him.
The women are really the stars in this show, including WBTT newcomer (but longtime gospel singer) Elaine Mayo and the returning Neyce Pierre. They’re the ones who lead numbers like Jackson’s Great Getting Up Morning (jones), Didn’t It Rain, Children (Mayo), Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep (Pierre) and How Great Thou Art (Blue).
Often the songs are rousers, bound to get audience members clapping and swaying along, but sometimes the action (punctuated by young male and female dancers keeping things lively with Donald Frison’s choreography) slows for a quieter moment, or one that reveals the pain that lies behind the African-American experience, as when jones delivers a wrenching Trouble of the World.
How I Got Over also allows the young Victoria Byrd, who has mostly been known for her dancing, to demonstrate her own vocal chops on the hopeful God Put a Rainbow in the Sky and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands—a very familiar song that feels comforting right now in light of international events.
As mentioned, there’s lots of energetic dancing by the cast, especially Byrd, Jeffery Cason Jr., Derric Gobourne Jr., Joshua Thompson and Topaz Von Wood, sometimes sporting tambourines or the types of fans that will be familiar to churchgoers sitting in hot pews. But despite all that movement, How I Got Over can occasionally feel static, simply because we have no storyline or sense of time developing. You might initially think that the show would at least touch on the civil rights movement where Jackson was a powerful voice, but no, other than a few photos glimpsed briefly in the background.
So that leaves How I Got Over as 90 minutes or so of pure gospel, performed with fervor by a talented cast—nothing more, nothing less. For many, that will be enough.
How I Got Over continues through Aug. 14; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.