Actress and singer Bernardine Mitchell understands the remarkable odyssey of Mahalia Jackson far better than most ever will.
Jackson, who died in 1972, was a raw, young, naive gospel singer who became the greatest ambassador of her art in the world.
Mitchell had many of those same attributes, though now she is a polished, conservatory-trained performer. More than a shared Southern cultural heritage, Mitchell's bond with Jackson exists through "Mahalia: A Gospel Musical," in which the award-winning actress stars as the gospel legend.
The show opens this week at the Guild Theatre. This new, locally produced version stars Mitchell, who portrays Jackson in Tom Stolz's play for the 10th time. Joining Mitchell will be another veteran of the play's many national productions, S. Renee Clark, who co-stars as Jackson's musical assistant and longtime friend, Mildred Falls. Clark also serves as music director for the production.
The cast is filled out by Anthony D'Juan in several male roles, including Martin Luther King Jr., and the onstage Hammond B-3 organist will be Willis Hickerson.
Mitchell has received two high-profile awards while portraying Jackson: the 2005 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding lead actress at the MetroStage in Alexandria, Va.; and the 2005 Suzi Bass Award for best actress at Theatre in the Square in Marietta, Ga. She also won a Drama-Logue Award for best actress as Bessie Smith in "Bessie's Blues" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and the 2002 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding lead actress as Lady From the Road in "Blues in the Night," at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
"Mahalia was a force of nature, and the force still lives," Mitchell said during a rehearsal break last week. "Her energy still lives."
Mitchell finds it remarkable that 40 years after her death, Jackson still is known as the greatest gospel singer ever.
"Usually someone else has taken over that spot by now, but she still ranks as No. 1, which I think is quite extraordinary," Mitchell said.
Mitchell loves the idea of bringing Jackson's life to people who never knew about her or those who just had a hint of what Jackson accomplished.
Jackson was born and raised in New Orleans and began singing at the Mount Mariah Baptist Church. Known as the "Queen of Gospel," Jackson rose to prominence in the 1940s and during the 1950s became an internationally known touring performer more famous in Europe than she was in the United States. At the height of her career in 1961, Jackson sang at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball.
Jackson was extremely active in the civil rights movement of the times and performed from a stage on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Wash- ington for Jobs and Freedom that preceded King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. It has been said Jackson inspired King's impromptu, sermonlike sequence by saying "Tell them about the dream, Martin," referencing parts of a speech King had made in Detroit a few weeks earlier. Jackson also sang at King's funeral in 1968.
While the play has been criticized for being an oversimplified, rose-colored view of Jackson's life and times, Mitchell sees no problem with just touching on the highlights.
"She never let anything trip her up," Mitchell said.
"If she did fall down, she was back up before we ever saw it. So many things could have stopped her, but nothing did."
Mitchell, who studied recordings and video of Jackson, believes the singer's impassioned delivery came from a need to push pain from her heart through music.
"People say if there was hell in the song, then she sang the hell out of it," Mitchell said.
"Her conviction was incredible. She would take one song and give it her all even if it was just the first song of a concert and she had eight or 10 more songs to sing."
Mitchell's own background has a similarity to Jackson's in that she was an unassuming high school choral singer in a Georgia town near Atlanta. A new teacher at the school heard her sing and envisioned a professional career.
"She said, 'You're good enough to go to Oberlin.' I'd never heard of Oberlin (Conservatory in Ohio) or any conservatory or anything like that," Mitchell said.
Mitchell had schooled herself in jazz vocal classics including Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Cleo Laine and Ella Fitzgerald.
"I loved music. I loved it. It was like my best friend and I loved to listen to it," she said.
At her teacher's urging, Mitchell began singing at competitions in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
"All the judges told me I should continue, and it was surprising to me because I didn't know my voice would be pleasing to an audience," Mitchell said.
Representatives from the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory came to hear her sing two Italian art songs her mentor had taught her, and the gospel hymn "Precious Lord." Mitchell was offered and accepted a full scholarship soon after that.
"My mother did not want me to go. She said it was too far and she would not sign my scholarship papers," Mitchell said.
"But I think when people believe in you, you have to step over onto their side, and I made up my mind. I said I want to go and get the best training. I want to be able to sing anything and everything."
The Oberlin training opened more doors than Mitchell could have imagined, and though she has had a career in Atlanta as well as being a highly regarded jazz singer, she has also toured internationally as Antigone in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical "The Gospel at Colonus," as well as playing Mrs. Potts in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" and the Matron in "Chicago."
"You have to find your uniqueness," Mitchell said.
"My mother used to say, 'If you follow the crowd, you'll never stand out.' "
MAHALIA: A GOSPEL MUSICAL
What: Gateway Media presents a new production of Tom Stolz's bio-drama starring the Helen Hayes Award-winning Bernardine Mitchell in the title role of Mahalia Jackson, who was known as the "Queen of Gospel Music."
When: Opening 7 p.m. Thursday and continuing at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Sept. 23.
Where: Guild Theatre, 2828 35th St., Sacramento.
Tickets: $25 to $58, with youth and senior discounts.
Information: www.MahaliaSacramento.com or call (916) 520-0827