PAWTUCKET — Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins are lending some Hollywood star power to the Mixed Magic Theatre’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 Providence’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 “When Mahalia Sings” at the Mixed Magic Theatre at 171 Main St. to announce their support for the upcoming shows.
The show, “When Mahalia Sings,” which first ran in the spring of 2010, is a fictional journey set on a train traveling from Jackson’s home in New Orleans to Chicago. Along the way, the story shows different points in Jackson’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 Theatre’s downtown Pawtucket stage, “When Mahalia Sings” 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 people’s lives and show how they are interwoven into the cultural fabric of America. These events will include other shows such as “When Fate Comes Knocking” and “Waiting for Bessie Smith.”
On Saturday, Davis and Jenkins joined Mixed Magic Theatre’s co-founders, Ricardo and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, and their son, Jonathan, who is the author and director of “When Mahalia Sings,” 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 “Doubt,” 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 People’s School for the Performing Arts in Rumford, RI. She recalled having to take several buses from her home in Central Falls to Rumford—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 “makes all the difference to someone who dreams, and dreams big.”
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 today’s young talent. “You have to start somewhere. You’ve got to train your legs. And local theaters are the perfect way to do that,” 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 “The Visitor.” He is also well known for his role in the critically acclaimed HBO series “Six Feet Under.”
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 person’s confidence and self esteem. “It’s about growing up, and being three-dimensional, and nothing can do that like the arts,” he stated.
Of his and Davis’s lending their names to the projects, Jenkins noted the economic struggle that local arts venues face, but said that “Ricardo refuses to give up. So the least we can do is be honorary co-chairs to events that are so important to young people.”
Kim Trusty, who plays the role of Rosie in “When Mahalia Sings,” spoke of how she was “just a girl with a guitar playing on the streets,” when Ricardo encouraged her to become involved with Mixed Magic Theatre. She said the performing experience helped her develop into “a whole person” 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 America’s history. The plays encompass the period from 1890 to 1910 which was the height of Mahalia Jones’ 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. “Music was the balm that was there to cover up a whole bunch of wounds that were happening at that time,” 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 theater’s name was chosen partly because “We believe within everyone is some magic.”
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, who is also Mixed Magic’s artistic director, said that while the three plays have a common thread that would be considered by many to be black history, it’s more accurate to say that they reflect “American history that involves black people.” Of the shows, he said, “These 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.”
“When Mahalia Sings” has been extended to Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances through Jan. 23; “When Fate Comes Knocking” will run from Feb. 11-27 and “Waiting for Bessie Smith” will run from April 15-May 15.
The Arc of Events also includes “Mahalia Jackson & Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival” at the Mixed Magic Theatre in July and Mahalia Jackson’s 100th Birthday Gala at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence on Oct. 26.