SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story Black Music in America
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn
At: 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230
Performances: February 2-25, 2018
Ticket Prices: $20
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
William Dye wrote and directed Songs from the Soul, a foot-tapping musical revue that traces the history of black music in America from slavery to the present. Aimed at theater-goers aged 7 and up, the show runs for a delightful one hour with no intermission.
On Sunday afternoon the three-actor ensemble of William Anderson, Anthony Cosby, and Nicole Pearson took a diverse audience (age, race, gender) that nearly filled the house on a musical journey from Negro spirituals and slave songs through contemporary hip hop and rap. Young and old, black and white calmly patted their feet or clapped along to the music for the first few minutes until Anthony Cosby, who appears to be the baby of the group, came out in a permed wig and sparkly jacket and threw his leg up on the piano during his spirited rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” That seemed to loosen up the audience considerably.
While Anderson, Cosby, and Pearson maintained a lively and fictitious rivalry, it was Cosby who repeatedly sought to engage the audience, at one point involving the three sections (east, west, and south) in a three-part chant of “Whoomp, There It Is!” Anderson and Cosby donned fluffy retro Afro wigs for the “Soul Medley” (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Respect/Think”) the trio moved some to tears with a “Civil Rights Medley” including excerpts of “Precious Lord,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “We Shall Overcome,” complete with a portrait of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And was it just me, or did Pearson’s coat, head scarf, and grocery bag remind anyone else of Rosa Parks?
The “Rap Medley” began with the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which is usually held to be the original herald of hip hop and included the all-too familiar lyrics to “The Breaks” and “Whoomp, There It Is” as well Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Eric B and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” This medley sparked an interactive conversation at Sunday afternoon’s Act of Faith talkback. One local pastor in the audience had questions about rap, hip hop, and Christian values, while Virginia Rep’s Founding Producer Bruce Miller, who moderated the Talkback, shared some amusing anecdotes from the point of view of a “liberal white guy.”
The long and the short of it is that music can be a universal, unifying force that brings people together. As an example, Writer/Director William Dye expressed pleasant surprise that white members of the audience stood for the closing song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson, it was first performed February 12, 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and has since become known as the Negro or Black National Anthem. As such, it is traditional for black people to stand in respect, as for any national anthem, when sung in churches and for community programs.
Songs from the Soul includes an historical narrative that manages never to get bogged down – even when addressing such weighty subjects as slavery and civil rights. That’s what happens when you have a theatrical professional who is also a teacher in charge of the production. (The term “edutainment” which accurately describes this merging of entertainment and educational content was coined in the 1970s by former Harvard professor Robert Heyman.)
Simple additions to basic costumes – a wig, a jacket, a dashiki – create atmosphere, identify the time period, and indicate identity. Sue Griffin’s costuming, Skyler Broughman’s lighting, and Terrie Powers’ set design are all simple and unobtrusive, keeping the music centerstage. A fourth cast member, Michaela Nicole, serves as the swing or understudy, but we did not have the pleasure of her presence on Sunday.
My trusted and experienced consultant for all children’s shows, my 9-year-old grandson, Kingston, gave Songs from the Soul two thumbs up, but did not add any details. To my surprise, he did participate in the talkback, asking the cast members about their favorite types of music. While there was a wide range of preferences, nearly all, including Director Dye, showed a preference for Christian and Gospel music, and Cosby confessed to a strong preference for jazz and big and sounds. Sounds from the Soul offers everyone a chance to enlarge their musical vocabulary.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos by Aaron Sutten