CharPo looks back on the extraordinary career of theatre legend Roger Peace on the eve of the world premiere of his new musical about gospel and civil-rights icon Mahalia Jackson, starring his old friend and muse, Montreal jazz great Ranee Lee
by Richard Burnett
“I just happened to be reading a book about Mahalia Jackson and I just started writing,” says legendary Montreal actor, writer, director and producer Roger Peace whose new production The Mahalia Jackson Musical premieres at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts on March 7 (previews begin on March 3).
Peace – whose musicals include Piaf: Love Conquers All (it debuted at Le Stage dinner theatre at La Diligence restaurant in Montreal in 1992 and starred Patsy Gallant before wowing Off-Broadway audiences at the SoHo Playhouse in 2007), Red Hot Mama: Songs and Stories of Sophie Tucker and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, as well as the upcoming Judy: By Myself (about Judy Garland) and The Magic of Marlene (about Marlene Dietrich) – says his Mahalia musical is unlike his others.
That, and how instrumental Jackson was inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, it was during his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington that Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Just 21 years-old, Peace experienced the tail-end of Montreal’s golden Sin-City era. “Montreal was quite fun in those days,” he says.
Peace would appear on TV (including one appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), in night-clubs, on film and the stage. Later, as artistic director of Montreal's Snapshot Productions, he directed such musicals as Nunsense I and Nunsense II, as well as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
If there is one theme running through all of his work, it is – like Hollywood film director George Cukor – tough-as-nails women.“I just like writing for women,” Peace explains. “I can’t get myself excited about a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. And the women are usually larger-than-life, strong women, and they are glamororus costume-wise. I just feel so much more comfortable writing about women than I do about men. I’ve never been attracted to writing about men.”
But Peace, now 77 years old, smiles ruefully.
Video clip of The Mahalia Jackson Musical