The Gospel Truth

Black Theatre Troupe is taking people to church with Mama, I Want to Sing, the first production of its silver-anniversary season. With a program that reads more like a Sunday bulletin than a playbill, this production got a hearty "amen" from the opening-night audience: The powerful musical brought the full house to its feet.

This production, which ran for eight years off-Broadway during the '80s, follows the early career of Doris Winter. The story is loosely based on the life of author Vy Higginsen's sister, singer Doris Troy (who played Mama Winter in the original 1983 production). Higginsen describes the show as "the story of a young girl, born and raised in the church, who finds that her talent leads her out into 'the world' to sing for all people."

Doris' journey begins in the soprano section of the Mount Calvary Church choir in Harlem, where her father is pastor, and leads to the pop-music world of the early 1960s. The plot revolves around radio station WVHW's In the Limelight program, the station's version of This Is Your Life. The show's host ties together Mama's 25 musical numbers with tidbits about Doris' life, but this narrative is mostly an excuse to introduce the next great number.

And the numbers are gorgeous. They run the gamut from gospel hymns ("My Faith Looks Up to Thee," "Faith Can Move a Mountain," "On Christ the Solid Rock") to pop ("I Could Write a Book," "Stormy Weather," "God Bless the Child"). Higginsen, coauthor Ken Wydro and arranger/composer Grenoldo Frazier make clever use of the song "Know When to Leave the Party," and they arrange an imaginative duet version of the medley "Precious Lord/His Eye Is On the Sparrow."

The play highlights three distinct chapters in Doris' life; but, as with the radio show, these chapters serve mainly as a template for organizing the musical program. The first chapter, which centers on Doris' training in the church choir, is full of robe-swaying, hand-raising choral numbers.

Chapter two revolves around the reaction of Doris and the entire Mount Calvary congregation to the death of Reverend Winter. She sings the heart-wrenching "I Don't Worry About Tomorrow" as her tribute to her father and the faith he instilled in her. The funeral scene is one of the highlights of the show.

The final chapter chronicles Doris' discovery of pop music--and such vocal greats as Dinah Washington, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday. Doris gets the performance bug and goes on tour with her back-up group, the Haloes. She leaves her mother and her old life behind, but neither is ever forgotten.

The dialogue is sparse and often trite, but the scene in which Doris and her mother square off over Doris' plan to tour is a gem.

Though this production has its share of rough edges (musical and dancing cues missed, some tempo problems), the show is really about energy, spirit and voices--especially voices.

Director David J. Hemphill has collected an abundance of impressive vocal talent. Jonnise Smith, who plays Doris, shows the range of Mariah Carey. Her voice is captivating on the title song, "Mama, I Want to Sing," as well as on "I Don't Worry About Tomorrow" and "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."

As Mrs. Winter, Renee Morgan Brooks can command the stage with a glance. Her strong acting is matched only by her gutsy vocals. Brooks captures the essence of gospel in the songs "Gifted Is" and "Precious Lord."

Vera Adams is wonderful as Sister Carrie, the church prima donna. She carries the audience away with "Faith Can Move a Mountain" and "Soon I Will Be Done." Backed by a dozen-voice choir, Adams aggressively pushes her vocal message right out front as she works her way through one big number after another.

Other standouts include Sean Boone's rendition of "He's Waiting on You" and Mallory Porche as the comic commandant choir director.

Pete Martin, as Reverend Winter, swallows his tender number, "You Are My Child," losing the audience during a pivotal scene.

Unfortunately, the opening-night sound system was a constant battle. Because the four-piece back-up combo was miked, Hemphill was forced to mike his performers. This resulted in an unnecessary aural nightmare, as these talented performers all project well.

Set designer Thom Gilseth has given the troupe a versatile stage, and Sebrenia Dixon-Sanders' costumes are excellent--especially Sister Carrie's outrageous hat collection.

This BTT production is performance on the edge. Though not the most polished piece currently playing in the Valley, it has what many shows lack: genuine spirit.

Mama, I Want to Sing is a reminder that dreams are worth chasing. And the music is powerful enough to get people out of their seats and chasing those aspirations.

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Mama, I Want toSing continues through Sunday, December 17, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.