BERNARDINE Mitchell's acclaimed turn as gospel legend Mahalia Jackson has been a lifetime in the making. "I've been told for so long, for so many years, 'You should do Mahalia! You should do Mahalia!' " she says, and it's easy to see (or, rather, hear) why: Mitchell's voice combines power, flexibility and control with a healthy dose of soul-deep inspiration. But it goes oh so much deeper than that.
Mitchell grew up in rural Georgia, a child of the segregated South at the dawning of the civil rights era. Jackson, one of the first black artists to cross over to the white mainstream in a significant way, loomed large as a symbol of better times to come. "Mahalia Jackson was the queen in our house," Mitchell says. "For my mother, when Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson showed up, it was as if something changed in the world. I remember seeing [Jackson] when she was on Ed Sullivan, and Nat King Cole had his TV show. My mother said, 'Now that is what we're about -- this is pride.' She had always wanted to see her people on that level."
In her youth, Mitchell regarded Jackson as both a role model and an impossible standard. "The responsibility was very heavy at that time," she remembers. Cultural pioneers like Jackson and Cole were carefully packaged for the white audience, any rough edges meticulously smoothed over. "When you saw how the record companies presented her, it was this image of a woman that had a direct line with God," Mitchell says. "You were thinking, 'That's just impossible to reach, because we are human.' "
Now in her forties, with more than two decades as an actor (not to mention a 2002 Helen Hayes Award) behind her, Mitchell finally felt ready to take on Mahalia Jackson as a person, not just a paragon. The choice of vehicles was scant -- Tom Stolz's music-heavy "Mahalia" tends toward hagiography -- but Mitchell at last had the life experience to fill in the blanks. "I don't think I could have done [Jackson's story] between then and now because I don't think I was mature enough," she says. "I understood it, but I don't think I could have captured it."
To create her embodiment of Mahalia, Mitchell synthesized childhood memory, research and a mature understanding of her own craft as an actor and singer. Physically, she focused on capturing the movement of Jackson's mouth, the rocking of her body mid-song. Vocally, she tried to distill Jackson's influence within her own singing style. "I can say that Mahalia was where I learned to sing; she was the woman I always wanted to imitate," Mitchell asserts. Still, there were other influences that had to be weeded out: "Dorothy Norwood, Aretha Franklin and people like that who were singing during those times -- Shirley Caesar -- they could just run all over chords and do all kinds of notes and show all their flexibility," she says. "Mahalia was what my mother called a 'flat-footed singer.' It was much more power than versatility. I wanted to simplify the music -- that's the part of me I had to really watch very closely."
Mitchell takes great pride in the result: "I think it's one of the best things I've ever done," she says. "I wish my mother was here. My mother just reveled in [Jackson] and to know that I'm doing her now . . . that's my only regret."