A careful listen to certain African-American slave spirituals reveals coded messages meant to evade understanding by white slaveholders, some folklorists say.
“Wade in the Water” refers to how fugitive slaves can throw off bloodhounds by traveling through streams. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is about the Big Dipper, reminding them to use it as a point of reference while escaping. Similarly, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away to Jesus” are about the Underground Railroad.
This is just one of the lessons imparted by Virginia Repertory Theatre’s original show “Songs from the Soul,” playing through Feb. 25 at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The hourlong show – which features arrangements by local actor and composer Jason Marks – highlights the contributions that African-Americans have made to American music, featuring spirituals, jazz, blues, Motown and hip-hop.
“It is a concept cabaret musical anthology that shows how African-American history influenced music, and how the music influenced history,” says Billy Dye, who created the show in the mid-1990s as an employee for children’s theater company Theatre IV. The company officially merged with Barksdale Theatre in 2012 to form Virginia Repertory Theatre.
Having just finished performing one of many musical revues at Busch Gardens at the time, Dye was a natural fit for the show.
“It combined everything I like,” says Dye, who now teaches musical theater for the Henrico Center for the Arts at Henrico High School. “It combined music, it combined African-American history, and it combined me doing a little bit of extra research as well.”
Originally created as a touring children’s show, “Songs from the Soul” will occupy a Richmond main stage for the second time ever this month. More than two decades since its creation, Dye says he’s updated some of the references. Gone is the joke about Tower Records, for example.
“Back when I wrote it in the ’90s, some of the topical jokes and humor were different,” says Dye, who directed the production that’s currently running.
“There is a ton of music in this show,” says Nicole Pearson, one of the performers. “Normally, even a full-length musical, you might get 20 tracks in a full-length, two-hour musical, and this is all just shoved into one [hour].”
The tributes include many of the famous African-American musicians of the past century, including Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations. Anthony Cosby gets to portray foundational rock n’ roll sprite Little Richard in a portion of the musical.
“It’s definitely a wonderful family show,” Cosby says. “It’s a powerful work of art, and it will reach attendees, whether they’re 7 or 70.”
Pearson stresses that the show is both high-energy and educational.
“You’re going to catch a little bit of history,” she says. “The hour flies by. It’s a ton of fun.”
Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Songs from the Soul” plays through Feb. 25 at he Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, 1601 Willow Lawn drive. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.