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Art&Seek on Think Video: The Gospel Queen

by Jerome Weeks 12 Jun 2009 5:22 PM

Sheran Goodspeed Keyton has portrayed blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith on stage. In The Gospel Queen at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, she and writer-director Ed Smith loosely re-create a breakthrough concert by gospel great Mahalia Jackson — her landmark performance at Carnegie Hall in 1950.


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  • Lawson Taitte’s review of The Gospel Queen in The Dallas Morning News

In The Gospel Queen at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth (through June 21), Sheran Goodspeed Keyton plays Mahalia Jackson in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1950 — a show the great gospel singer had repeatedly resisted. By then she’d already released several multi-million selling singles, but Jackson didn’t think she could draw a crowd at Carnegie or succeed with the critics. She became the first gospel singer to play Carnegie and the first gospel singer to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. She was also known for her performance during the 1963 March on Washington. In fact, The Gospel Queen is a little loose on chronology in order to include different aspects of Jackson’s career. In the show, she introduces a song, talking about her association with the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts. In 1950, King was still in college in Pennsylvania.

Jackson’s ”swinging style’ with gospel music repeatedly brought her offers to sing jazz and blues, which she regularly turned down, though she did perform “Come Sunday” for Duke Ellington. She can also be seen on YouTube, performing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a Bing Crosby TV special — she performs it and “Motherless Child” so powerfully that Dean Martin wisely tells Crosby they shouldn’t follow her with a song of their own.

Jubilee director Ed Smith, who conceived the show, has expanded an earlier, simpler stage piece (The Songbooks of Mahalia Jackson) by adding a young girl (Catherine Blake) and her father (Bill Haas), who explain to the audience why they’re attending Jackson’s concert.  Unfortunately, the additional material feels contrived and unnecessary.  Jackson and Keyton (and accompanist Joe Rogers) remain the real reasons to see The Gospel Queen.