A Piece of My Soul, New Age Theater Company, at Victory Gardens Theater. In its debut production, the New Age Theater Company follows in the footsteps of Black Ensemble's 1996 Great Women in Gospel to educate audiences in an often misunderstood genre. A Piece of My Soul traces the evolution of this indigenous American music from slave hymns sometimes used as a code in planning escapes to professional entertainment showcased in its own radio and television programs. Significant innovators of now familiar motifs are invoked: the Reverend William Seymour, whose preaching combined oratory with melodic improvisation; Thomas Dorsey, founder of the Gospel Quartet and the first gospel-music publishing house; Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, who incorporated dance steps in their performances; and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, whose "Oh Happy Day" was a crossover hit in 1969.
The show's scope sometimes means that Rodney Lewis's text is reduced to comic-book simplicity, but the music--ranging from the simple "Go Down Moses" to the jubilant "Open Our Eyes"--redeems any shortcomings. As interpreted by a stellar nine-member cast and an equally virtuosic four-piece combo, the play has an enduring power and intensity that speaks to all ages, cultures, and faiths.
--Mary Shen Barnidge