Reginald Robinson took a seat at the onstage piano and ripped into his own fast, bright ragtime-style tune, “Footloose.” And that did it. Only minutes after walking into a rehearsal for Keep a Song in Your Soul, I’d lost my reportorial cool. The guy is amazing.
Featuring Robinson, local tapper Reggio “the Hoofer” McLaughlin, and a preservationist band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Keep a Song in Your Soul is a look at the “black roots of vaudeville.” And those roots seem to stretch in every direction. The show covers a period of roughly 140 years, from the first quarter of the 19th century to the 1960s. At the rehearsal, I heard an old blues song, “See See Rider,” and the 1932 jazz hit “Underneath the Harlem Moon” (“Where do you highbrows find the kind of love that satisfies? / Underneath that Harlem moon!”). Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons did a sort of funky rifle drill with his guitar, and the whole cast square-danced—which surprised me even more than Felmons’s guitar swinging, but it turns out there’s a significant tradition of African-American square dance.
Two caveats: First, all of the above is held together by a narrative written in a poetic style that seems to value rhythm and mood over clarity. Second, the performers clearly aren’t trained actors; they can get a little rough when it comes to negotiating the occasional role. But they know their core business exceedingly well, so just be patient and wait for them to play.