Dig Baton Rouge

Community Gospel

When UpStage Theatre neared its tenth season, founder and director Ava Brewster Turner looked to her audience for suggestions on which of its past productions to run again. When the results came in, Tom Stolz’s musical “Mahalia!” topped the list. It will open up the 2014 season premiering at the Louisiana State Police Training Academy Auditorium on Feb. 15 and with a matinee performance Feb. 16.

This will be UpStage Theatre’s third time running the musical, which it staged first in 2009 and again in 2011.

Inspired by gospel sensation Mahalia Jackson, the narrative musical is a look back on the legendary singer’s life through her rise to stardom. It’s a production that introduces Jackson’s internal struggles and lack of desire to become a singer.

Born in New Orleans, Jackson left home for Chicago to become a nurse. While in Chicago she joined a church choir where she was known to blow other church members away with her voice. It was in that city that she met songwriter Thomas Dorsey, the “father of gospel”. The two toured together and Jackson breathed life into Dorsey’s songs, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was that song that brought Jackson to Carnegie Hall and stardom.

That’s the story Turner says UpStage Theatre audiences fell in love with the first time she produced it, which is why they’re doing it again in this, it’s “encore season”.

“Both times we produced “Mahalia!” it sold out and people really seemed to love it,” Turner says.

And while it hasn’t been long since its last revue with UpStage Theatre, Turner says the cast is almost completely different, with the exception of returning member Oonarissa Bernard – though Bernard is palying a different character this time. There’s also a directorial change to this presentation.

“There are only three characters in the story, but I added two local ministers – Jon Bennett, who is the pastor of Belfair Baptist Church, will appear as Mahalia’s pastor at the Feb. 15 show. And on Feb. 16 Isaiah Webster, who is pastor of the Greater New Guide Baptist Church, will appear,” Turner says.


The addition of the pastors was made to include community in UpStage Theatre’s celebration of its tenth season.

“I always like to touch my audience, I always like to reach out to my community,” Turner explains. “We always want to make the community a part of what we do at UpStage. Of course, this is Black History Month. Of course, Mahalia is a native of New Orleans. It’s UpStage’s tenth anniversary season and because we are a community theatre we are going out into the community.”

Oonarissa Bernard, who is playing Aunt Duke in this production of “Mahalia!”, says UpStage’s community work and theatre is reflected by Turner’s directorial decision to add the pastors – to include her community and inspire audiences.

“UpStage Theatre’s impact and importance to the Baton Rouge community is that it is the first black theatre in Baton Rouge,” Bernard says. “It offers many opportunities to those who have creative skills and talents; to be exposed to the public and give them confidence and hope to follow their dreams.”

Bernard credits the theatre group with much of her success as an actress, including her national television debut on the Investigation Discovery crime drama “Fatal Encounters”. She had a lead role in one of the episodes. Bernard has worked with Turner since she was in high school and has won several awards through the theatre company.

Whether it’s the production of musicals like “Mahalia!”, community outreach or inspiring young actresses, it’s all a part of UpStage Theatre’s mission to nurture and expand the talents of African-Americans, working collaboratively with other artists. It’s what’s kept the theatre company thriving for ten years and it’s why Turner has dedicated this season to her audience.

– Leslie D. Rose


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