A decade ago, playwright and director Nolbert Brown Jr. premiered the musical The Life Story of Mahalia Jackson at the Avalon Regal Theater in Chicago — the city where the acclaimed “Queen of Gospel” died in 1972. The production ran for three weeks and traveled to New Orleans, Jackson’s birthplace, where it ran for another three weeks.
Now The Life Story of Mahalia Jackson will kick off another tour, with its original cast, at the Met Philadelphia with two shows Saturday. After Philly, Brown said, the production will travel to Washington, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston.
“With Tyler Perry not touring plays right now,” Brown said, he saw an opportunity to stage the work with less competition for black audiences in major cities. “The cast was so excited when I called them,” to return to the show, Brown said. “They said yes before I could even get it out of my mouth.”
Gospel and R&B powerhouse Ann Nesby, formerly of the Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness, stars as Jackson. Philly natives Kevin Brown and John Canada Terrell are also a part of the show’s 15-member cast.
Musical numbers include “In the Upper Room,” “Trouble of the World,” “Elijah Rock,” and “Lord Search My Heart.”
Brown also wrote the touring musicals The Life Story of Marvin Gaye and The Life Story of Jackie Wilson and says Philly has always been a city where he’s had a loyal fan base. With Jackson’s story, he hopes that “people will realize how respected she was" and gain a deeper understanding of Jackson’s role in the civil rights movement.
Jackson famously performed five times at Carnegie Hall, starting in 1950, and won the first gospel Grammy award, in 1961.
She sang the national anthem at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961 and sang “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington in 1963. Jackson was a mentor to Aretha Franklin, among others, and discovered the 13-year-old Della Reese.
The musical sheds light on details from Jackson’s life, including her friendships with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and gospel singer James Cleveland.
Jackson was “an international singer who crossed all kinds of boundaries,” said Val Gay, a Philadelphia authority on black music history and newly appointed chief experience officer at the Barnes Foundation.
“She was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite singers," Gay said. “He would often ask her to sing at his rallies.” Jackson also memorably sang “Precious Lord” at his funeral.
From the late 1920s until her death, Jackson was known for her distinct tone and her ability to “help people see and feel pain," said Gay. “She had such a presence to her voice and to her eyes. ... She didn’t do a lot of vocal acrobatics, she had a pure sound.”
Brown said he hopes the 2-hour-plus show (with one intermission) will give audiences a sense of Jackson’s influence on both popular music and black history.
The Life Story of Mahalia Jackson
2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St.