PAWTUCKET â€” Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins are lending some Hollywood star power to the Mixed Magic Theatreâ€™s year-long celebration of the 100th birthday of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and a related series of events.
Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, and Jenkins, who spent many years at Providenceâ€™s Trinity Repertory Company and lives in Cumberland, have agreed to be honorary co-chairs as Mixed Magic kicks off its Arc of Events that centers around the legendary gospel great.
The two veteran actors appeared at a Saturday morning press conference held on the set of â€śWhen Mahalia Singsâ€ť at the Mixed Magic Theatre at 171 Main St. to announce their support for the upcoming shows.
The show, â€śWhen Mahalia Sings,â€ť which first ran in the spring of 2010, is a fictional journey set on a train traveling from Jacksonâ€™s home in New Orleans to Chicago. Along the way, the story shows different points in Jacksonâ€™s life, and shines a spotlight on some of the important musical and social changes going on in the country at the time.
A hit with audiences on the Mixed Magic Theatreâ€™s downtown Pawtucket stage, â€śWhen Mahalia Singsâ€ť is scheduled to travel to the Cambridge Multicultural Center in Cambridge, MA in February.
The Arc of Events, sponsored by Bank RI, is a year-long celebration of stories of people, and uses music and theater to connect the threads of real peopleâ€™s lives and show how they are interwoven into the cultural fabric of America. These events will include other shows such as â€śWhen Fate Comes Knockingâ€ť and â€śWaiting for Bessie Smith.â€ť
On Saturday, Davis and Jenkins joined Mixed Magic Theatreâ€™s co-founders, Ricardo and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, and their son, Jonathan, who is the author and director of â€śWhen Mahalia Sings,â€ť to talk about the importance of the shows and of local theater.
In addition to being a 2009 Academy Award nominee for her role in the movie â€śDoubt,â€ť Davis has won Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards for her work in live theater and has also appeared in plays, TV series and several other films. She said it is critical for the development of young actors to be able to hone their skills in local entertainment venues.
Davis said that when she was 14 years-old, her talent was recognized by Bernard Masterson, the director of the Young Peopleâ€™s School for the Performing Arts in Rumford, RI. She recalled having to take several buses from her home in Central Falls to Rumfordâ€”a two and-a-half hour trip each way-- and would arrive late because of this, in contrast to all of the other acting students, who were dropped off in cars by their parents. However, she also noted that having a mentor and being given a chance to perform â€śmakes all the difference to someone who dreams, and dreams big.â€ť
Davis noted that while growing up in Rhode Island, there were not a lot of opportunities for her in the performing arts, and she credited theaters such as Mixed Magic, and the mentoring nature of the Pitts-Wileys, for their efforts in promoting and encouraging todayâ€™s young talent. â€śYou have to start somewhere. Youâ€™ve got to train your legs. And local theaters are the perfect way to do that,â€ť she said.
Jenkins, besides having a venerable career as an actor with the Trinity Repertory Company, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009 for his work in the movie â€śThe Visitor.â€ť He is also well known for his role in the critically acclaimed HBO series â€śSix Feet Under.â€ť
Jenkins lamented that the arts are so often the first area to be cut in school budgets, and praised Ricardo and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley for their commitment to the kids of the community. He spoke about how performing in front of an audience boosts a young personâ€™s confidence and self esteem. â€śItâ€™s about growing up, and being three-dimensional, and nothing can do that like the arts,â€ť he stated.
Of his and Davisâ€™s lending their names to the projects, Jenkins noted the economic struggle that local arts venues face, but said that â€śRicardo refuses to give up. So the least we can do is be honorary co-chairs to events that are so important to young people.â€ť
Kim Trusty, who plays the role of Rosie in â€śWhen Mahalia Sings,â€ť spoke of how she was â€śjust a girl with a guitar playing on the streets,â€ť when Ricardo encouraged her to become involved with Mixed Magic Theatre. She said the performing experience helped her develop into â€śa whole personâ€ť and she, in turn, has helped by volunteering with other youngsters interested in the performing arts.
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley said that the Arc of Events that involves the three plays offer an important history lesson into not only the development of gospel music but to moments in Americaâ€™s history. The plays encompass the period from 1890 to 1910 which was the height of Mahalia Jonesâ€™ popularity, to her death in 1970. He noted how the music of Bessie Smith links to Aretha Franklin and in turn to Dwight Eisenhower and to Sissieretta Jones, and on and on. â€śMusic was the balm that was there to cover up a whole bunch of wounds that were happening at that time,â€ť he stated.
Pitts-Wiley noted that Mixed Magic Theatre has been in existence now for 10 years, and has maintained its mission of introducing people to the theatre and encouraging raw talent. He said that the theaterâ€™s name was chosen partly because â€śWe believe within everyone is some magic.â€ť
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, who is also Mixed Magicâ€™s artistic director, said that while the three plays have a common thread that would be considered by many to be black history, itâ€™s more accurate to say that they reflect â€śAmerican history that involves black people.â€ť Of the shows, he said, â€śThese are essential American stories. You stand on the shoulders of giants, but giants stand on the shoulders of people who never read a book, never get their names in the papers. A lot happened in America during that time.â€ť
â€śWhen Mahalia Singsâ€ť has been extended to Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances through Jan. 23; â€śWhen Fate Comes Knockingâ€ť will run from Feb. 11-27 and â€śWaiting for Bessie Smithâ€ť will run from April 15-May 15.
The Arc of Events also includes â€śMahalia Jackson & Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festivalâ€ť at the Mixed Magic Theatre in July and Mahalia Jacksonâ€™s 100th Birthday Gala at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence on Oct. 26.