Background/significance: She has played at the Frankfurt Opera House in Germany, performed for the Queen of England and entertained heads of state at the G8 Summit. But it wasn’t until her name appeared in an SAT question about the Gullah culture that Marlena Smalls knew she was well on the way to achieving her mission of educating the world about Gullah.
The classically trained lyric soprano has spent the last 25 years performing Gullah music rooted in the rich heritage her West African ancestors brought to the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia more than 300 years ago.
Born in Ohio to South Carolinian parents, Smalls took an avid interest in her Gullah heritage after moving to Beaufort with her six children in 1982. Recognizing the important role Gullah has played in our history, she founded the Gullah Festival in Beaufort three years later to celebrate and preserve the Gullah culture and its many traditions.
In 1990, Smalls founded the Hallelujah Singers and went on to develop a series of concerts on the Gullah way of life. Using songs and stories about the customs and beliefs of the Gullah people, Smalls brought to life images of slaves turning fields of soil with mule-drawn plows, fishing the inlets and digging for clams in the broad flatlands. Her energetic and animated style, blended with the vibrant voices of her choral ensemble, turned the Hallelujah Singers into one of the region’s hottest acts.
As interest in the Gullah culture grew, Smalls and her troupe found themselves traveling all over the world to share the Gullah story. They’ve appeared on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” performed at the Kennedy Center and Chicago’s famed Ravinia festival, and toured Europe multiple times.
Over the years, they’ve recorded a half-dozen CDs, including “Juba,” sold in the gift shop at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.
In addition to performing with the Hallelujah Singers, Smalls has had a successful career as a soloist, singing gospel, contemporary, jazz and blues. But she is probably best known for playing the role of Bubba’s mama in the film, “Forrest Gump.”
South Carolina connection: More than three decades after moving to the Lowcountry,Smalls still makes Beaufort her home. Her “Fa Da Chillun” outreach program takes her on road trips all over the Southeast, teaching and entertaining in schools, auditoriums and festivals.
In 2015, she reprised her original song “Carry Me Home” and the role of “Bessie Mae” in Columbia City Ballet’s “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green.”
Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers were named South Carolina Ambassadors of Tourism and a Local Legacy of South Carolina by the US Library of Congress. They have received numerous honors, including the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award, the highest tribute bestowed by the state in the arts.