Troi Bechet has several things in common with Mahalia Jackson, the queen of gospel music.
They both grew up in New Orleans and discovered great joy in singing gospel. Both added an “i” to their names — Jackson was named Mahala; Bechet was named Troy. But they part ways on dancing.
Jackson loved it.
“I’m a singer who acts,” says Bechet. “I can’t dance to save my soul.”
Bechet long has been inspired by Jackson, and she wrote and stars in “Flowers for Halie,” which opens this week at Southern Rep Theatre.
Bechet has starred in movies (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), on TV (“K-Ville”) and stage productions of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” and John Biguenet’s “The Breach.” She’s also a former member of the all-woman gospel group One A-Chord, and sings jazz, blues and performed with Africa Brass.
That background was one of the reasons Southern Rep Artistic Director Aimee Hayes asked Bechet to sing and perform as Jackson in a fundraiser for the theater. After she sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the event, she sketched the outlines of a show about Jackson and her music.
“Flowers for Halie” is set in 1968 and features a dozen songs, including Jackson’s landmark “Move on Up a Little Higher,” which sold more than eight million copies.
Jackson grew up in a large family in the Black Pearl neighborhood. She started singing in church as a child and was a featured singer, performing four times on Sundays by the age of 12. At 16, she moved with a relative to Chicago, where she later met Thomas Dorsey, a renowned gospel singer who helped Jackson’s career. Jackson recorded a dozen singles that sold more than one million copies, and by the early 1950s, she was a star.
Though she was greatly influenced by blues singer Bessie Smith, Jackson refused to sing secular music. When she sang with Louis Armstrong, they did “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But some gospel listeners accused her of bringing jazz to the church.
“She adored New Orleans,” Bechet says. “It shaped her. She talks about New Orleans music being in her soul. It was just part of being her — it was in the water.”
Jackson was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement. She sang at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. She also sang at King’s funeral in 1968. That was a difficult year for Jackson, Bechet says. In addition to the death of King, Jackson divorced her second husband and her health started to decline.
“Flowers for Halie” shows Jackson looking back on her singing success and her advocacy for civil rights. It also includes her disappointments. She was forced to leave school after elementary school and always regretted it. Although she loved children, she never was able to become a mother. It also reveals some of her personal strengths. She loved to cook, Bechet says. And she was a determined and frugal business person. Her powerful voice and music reflected her view of the world.
“The blues do not give you strength,” Mahalia said. “I sing gospel music because it makes me feel free.”
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“Flowers for Halie”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, May 8-26 (previews May 8-10)
Southern Rep Theatre, 2541 Bayou Road, (504) 522-6545; www.southernrep.com