By Dwight Hobbes
Going backstage to the dressing room, congratulating Sandra Robinson Hodges on her triumphant turn as Mahalia Jackson at the Old Log Theater, you’d never guess she’s Twin Cities’ gospel royalty, not from her unassuming manner. She greets you with a warm smile, “Just call me Sandy,” and is fairly shy about accepting compliments.
For the record though, if she did have a swelled head, it’d be hard to blame her.
For one, she has worked and recorded with her more famous brother, Robert Robinson, most notably at the well-renowned Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, where she succeeded him as artistic and executive director. Among her accomplishments in the area, she performed as both lead and background vocalist on albums for the Sam Davis Gospel Ensemble, Minneapolis Gospel Sound, and Excelsior Choral Ensemble. Nationally, she has performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Jermaine Jackson, and Prince.
There’s considerably more, including her present tenure as choir director at Park Avenue United Methodist Church and chapel choir director at Bethel University. Suffice to say, illustrious singer Sandra Hodges (SH) indeed is an entity of considerable consequence. During the run of Mahalia, where she shared the stage with gifted performers Dianne E’Laine and Sam Reeves, she granted the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder an email interview to reflect on her artistry.
MSR: How did you come to do this role? Were you in the premiere?
SH: I was blessed to see this play in 1994 when it first came out. Mahalia was played by the remarkable Jeralyn Steele Battle. She was so good and I felt connected to Mahalia. I never forgot how her portrayal of her was so real. When this opportunity arose last year to try out, I did.
MSR: What research did you do for the part, and how familiar were you already with Mahalia Jackson?
SH: I did very little research on her, her life. I watched her on YouTube and realized that her genuine spirit is what touched lives. I was raised listening to her all the time. In fact, I was raised very much like her: the same values, the same strictness, the same love of singing, and the same love of God.
MSR: What is it like working with Dianne E’Laine and Sam Reeves?
SH: Never a dull moment. [None] of us have acting experience. I have been blessed to work with Sam Reeves for the last 10-plus years. He is a very talented and serious man. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity to work with him. This is a first for Dianne E’Laine and myself. She is so special and very nice. So far, so good.
MSR: What about working with the playwright, Old Log founding artistic director, Tom Stolz?
SH: Well, Tom and I have a very long and wonderful relationship. We met years ago when he was doing the Book of St. Mark (from memory). He is such a gentle man and so remarkable. I have such respect for him and for his leadership. I feel that through this play he and I have moved to a new level in our friendship. He and his family are a force to be reckoned with. Tom is the mastermind behind this play. He has spent so much time researching this woman and when directing us through the script he was able to really lead and place us in the moment. My mind is blown away by him. He really has the patience of Job, for real!
MSR: I get the impression not a whole lot of Black people made it out to be in the audience. What do you think about that?
SH: We worked so hard to get the word out to all people of every race, color and creed. This play touches everyone right where they are…It contains great history and knowledge that our young people may not know about.
MSR: What’s next?
SH: A break and then back to my other jobs. I’ve decided that I’m gonna live the life I sing about in my song.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.