Juno winner fronts VisionTV drama

VisionTV is looking to bring in a new, younger audience with Mahalia, the first one-hour drama for the multi-faith, multicultural channel, now shooting in Nova Scotia.

‘[Mahalia's] not limited,’ says Joan Jenkinson, Vision’s director of independent production and exec producer. ‘It’s an edgy drama around a church, gangs, the choir and a love triangle.’

Produced by Halifax Films, the six-part series is expected to air in January. Andy Marshall is creative producer, with Stefan Scaini (Degrassi: The Next Generation) and Steve DiMarco of The Chris Isaak Show directing.

Mahalia rose from DiverseTV, a joint initiative by Vision and the National Screen Institute – Canada that aims to offer aboriginal and visible minority writers the chance to create TV drama for national broadcast.

Shot on a budget of $820,000 per episode, the crew ranges from 75 to 85 people. Floyd Kane (North/South), Peter Lauterman (North of 60), Michael Donovan (Bowling for Columbine) and Charles Bishop (The Guard) exec produce.

‘It’s two-thirds of what the typical drama is produced for, so it’ll be a challenge,’ says Kane.

Exteriors are being shot in Toronto, with the bulk of production taking place over 36 days in the East Coast.

The series sees gifted Toronto gospel singer Mahalia Brown, played by Juno-winning singer/songwriter and Ottawa native Keshia Chanté, on the verge of leaving the safety of the church and her family for the fast track to pop stardom. Mahalia and her friends Alicia, played by Jessica Parker Kennedy (Smallville), and Samson, played by Eli Goree (‘da Kink in My Hair) explore spiritual issues against a backdrop rife with conflict and filled with music – including the Keystone Sanctuary Youth Choir.

Casting the choir was easy for Jenkinson, who created the 2006 reality series Gospel Challenge. The Halifax group and conductor Shauntay Grant ‘blew me away; it was an easy choice,’ she says.

With a large ensemble cast, Chanté was in the minds of directors early on.

‘There’s definite parallels to [Chanté's] life,’ says Jenkinson. ‘The idea of having a sheltered upbringing and then moving into stardom is something she identified with.’

As part of Mahalia’s promotion, ‘a documentary about the choir’s selection is in the works,’ says Jenkinson. The hour-long doc will air as a precursor to the series.

‘Our channel’s demographic is usually 50-plus women, but we’re thinking Mahalia will bring in the 35 to 45 age range. Add those interested in Keshia’s music and the subject matter, and we expect a more youthful audience as well,’ says Jenkinson.