Mahalia at Hattiloo 

Hattiloo director Mark Allan Davis was unsure. The music was strong. Sonically, it would be difficult to go wrong with a musical built around the life of gospel giant Mahalia Jackson. The singer's life story, particularly where it intersects the life of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., might provide enough fodder for a dozen plays. But something about the script for the frequently revived gospel musical Mahalia left Davis unsatisfied.

"It reminded me of a travelogue," he says. "We went here and did this, then we went here and did that," he says monotonously. "I couldn't find the action." As it happens, Davis had been hired to do just that. After producing several iterations of the popular musical, it was time to reinvent it from the ground up.

click to enlarge Mahalia
  • Mahalia

"Ekundayo [Bandele] told me he wanted dancers," Davis says, recalling a conversation with Hattiloo's founder and executive producer. "He mentioned having recently seen Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" and wanted the spirit of the music expressed in movement. "That made it easier once I started rehearsals."

"The actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. is also a great dancer and took things through the roof," Davis says, describing Ailey-inspired choreography created for one of King's best-known speeches. "I have the actors around him basically holding him, lifting him. He falls back on them while he's doing this whole speech," Davis says.

The music for Hattiloo's Mahalia revival is performed live.

"Theresa Willis is extraordinary as Jackson," Davis says.

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