At one point in "Keep a Song in Your Soul," a project billed as the Old Town School of Folk Music's first foray into the world of theater, a narrative description is provided of how the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced through his pain with his feet.
Since some of the material in this exploration of "the black roots of vaudeville" includes minstrelsy, there's a rationale for having an interlocutor. But at that very moment, about two feet away, Reggio "The Hoofer" McLaughlin is dancing as Bojangles. In an illustrated lecture, say, you might want somebody explaining what's happening. But if McLaughlin is doing his job — and on Thursday night at the Old Town, believe me, he was most surely doing his job — he is showing you how Bojangles danced through his pain. And that's one of the reasons why this very promising piece still needs a lot of work.
A work of theater needs to trust its own material. The evening begins with a kind of narrative apologia, a desire to contextualize what we are about to see and to tell the audience that the company knows very well that some of this material is rooted in subjugation and stereotype and is, therefore, "dissonant." You get the sense they're worried about how it will go over.
Actually, "dissonant" puts it mildly. Some of the material, especially in the minstrel-show section, is downright painful to watch. But, you know, making an audience uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing ("The Scottsboro Boys" did that on Broadway), especially when the source of discomfort is grounded in sinful historical reality.
Our narrator (Lalenja Harrington) tells us that we are watching an appropriation of pain, a difficult story told in the way that these African-American performers are choosing to tell it. Right. But that is self-evident, not the least because this show is full of musicians who can really perform this music — which is drawn mostly from the era right around the great black migration to the North — in a way that reflects to its complexity. One of the reasons why you want this material — as superbly performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the determined pianist Reginald Robinson — to be trusted is that its performance at this level of formative authenticity, actually its performance at any level, is extremely rare. Other than the Drops, there are very few professional African-American string bands dedicated to this era.
You rarely hear "Brownskin Girl," "Plantation Echoes," "Papa De Da Da," "Colored Aristocracy," or "Signifying Monkey" coming from a stage. For good reason. But these songs are, of course, a rich part of American musical history. And to perform them is to honor the lives of the those whose realities they reflected, as well as honor the great black artists who found ways to transcend the vaudevillian boxes in which they were shoved. They did this through transgressive readings, soaring honesty, maybe just a wink. Many of the greats understood that they could perform their art on two different levels at once, both serving the cheap needs of others and reflecting their inner selves.
"Keep a Song in Your Soul," which is directed by Andrea J. Dymond and penned by Harrington and Sule Greg Wilson (who also performs), has a story involving a Country Girl (played by the superb Rhiannon Giddens) and a Country Boy (McLaughlin) who interact with a City Boy (Wilson) and a City Girl (Allison Russell). There is some promise there, given that so much of this material deals with the loneliness of the small-town Southerner in the free but coldhearted urban North. But simple as it is (and simple as it needs to be, when you have all this music to play), the narrative doesn't yet track well, partly because there is whole separate, competing mode of narration going on at the same time. When you add a third, meta-vaudeville frame and not much visual clarity, you end up with way too much going on at once.
In short, some key theatrical decisions have yet to be made. One hopes work will continue. There is a great story to be told — and played. When the music and the lives it explored are honored in the way that these performers can honor it, there is no need for anyone to worry. All cultural history is complex; great art of the people transcends.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $45 at 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org