Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe honors the power of gospel music — and its queen, Mahalia Jackson.
Nate Jacobs can’t sit still. West Coast Black Theatre Troupe is rehearsing for its upcoming production of “How I Got Over: A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson,” and the founder and artistic director is standing onstage, listening to a group of singers warm up during sound check.
It’s an informal vocal exercise — really just a microphone check. Still, Jacobs is visibly moved by the music. He’s posing for a photo at the moment, and it’s all he can do to maintain his pose.
A piano track echoes through the theater, and it’s not long before he’s tapping his foot and swaying to the music, a smile lighting up his face as he locks into the rhythm.
It’s almost involuntary. As Jacobs puts it, it’s the power of gospel music.
“When I hear that music,” he says, “the hair stands up on my neck. I start smiling. I can’t sit back at rehearsal. I have to stand up.”
Jacobs created, and will direct and perform in, the new production to pay homage to Mahalia Jackson, known as the Queen of Gospel. She paved the way for the genre to become mainstream and for other black singers to rise to prominence.
It was an important part of African-American history, and it was only right, he says, to celebrate it.
Many cultures have a close relationship with music. Few, it could be argued, are as historically significant as traditional gospel. The music is deeply intertwined with the African-American experience. Rooted in slavery, the genre was born as a way to provide hope for people who often had none.
“Music has the ability to soothe,” says Jacobs. “It’s therapeutic. Gospel music is so significant to our culture. These were people faced with a life of hardship. It was hard for them to see life any other way. So they looked to the heavens — to another world, where they would someday find their peace and joy. It was a source of inspiration.”
It’s a genre that continues to unite, even across generations. Jacobs’ father was a gospel singer, and he says he remembers growing up, watching his grandmother and neighbors lose themselves to the healing power of the music.
“Every Sunday morning, my grandmother would get dressed up, put on her hat, and sort of float out of the house,” he says. “She would put her head back and just let everything out, leaving her worries behind. Even today, African-Americans hold close to the roots of this music. It’s a bedrock. It’s spiritual, and it’s alive.”
Neyce Pierre, one of the singers in the show, has a similar experience. Growing up, her family would play gospel records on a turntable, and the music was something that was always a part of her life.
When Jacobs approached her about the production, she was sold from the start.
“I grew up with this music, singing in the choir,” she says. “It was a first love for me. As soon as I heard the show was a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, I was on board. No matter what you’re going through, this music just makes you feel better. I’ve never heard a gospel song I couldn’t relate to.”
A COMPLETE EXPERIENCE
When creating the show, Jacobs says he didn’t want the production to be a biography of Jackson’s life.
Instead, he wanted to use her music, and music from other gospel singers, to capture the essence of the genre she helped pioneer.
“How I Got Over” features 13 cast members and dancers performing 30 traditional gospel songs by Jackson and other greats, including The Caravans and Dorothy Love Coates, ranging in style from solemn hymns to upbeat, foot-stomping celebrations.
“This production has something for everyone,” says Jacobs. “First of all, it’s highly entertaining. Even if you didn’t grow up with this music, the singing and the dancing will resonate with anyone. If you did, it will bring back a lot of memories. It’s important to keep this genre alive.”
“There’s an old church saying,” she says. “It says ‘Don’t leave the same way you came.’ I think that’s what people will get from this performance. You won’t leave the same.”
IF YOU GO:
‘How I Got Over: A Tribute to Mahalia Jackson’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, July 14 Runs through Aug. 15
Where: Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Theatre, 1646 10th Way
Tickets: $38; $22 for students and active military members