By Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog
The joyous musical, A Piece of My Soul (The Anthology of Gospel), returns to Chicago, the city where it debuted, for one weekend, Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May 25, at
11901 South Ashland. Gospel superstar Vickie Winans will be part of the cast for these performances. Show time is 7:30 p.m. both evenings.
TBGB spoke with Rodney Lewis, writer/producer/director of the musical, and Faith Howard, one of the show’s stars and a gospel vocalist who was the first recipient of the Albertina Walker Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts Scholarship.
TBGB: Tell us what A Piece of My Soul is about.
RL: About twelve years ago, I had an idea to pay homage to the pioneers of gospel by doing a musical based on the story behind the music. Using African American history as the background, each scene of A Piece of My Soul is a journey through the African American experience, with gospel music as the soundtrack for that experience. The history of the music reflects the spiritual journey that we all take.
TBGB: What inspired you to write the musical?
RL: At the time, Behind the Music on VH1 was popular. Someone said to me that there’s a lot of history behind gospel music and gospel artists, and someone should tell it. I agreed. So I started researching the history of gospel music and the gospel pioneers. I was inspired by how much of it is
contribution. Gospel and Chicago history are tied
together, with people like Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson. And then you have Albertina Walker and the
Barrett Sisters, who actually performed with us during the first run of A Piece of My Soul. We’ll be paying tribute to them this time
But gospel was a part of my childhood. It’s what we grew up on.
TBGB: Ms. Howard, what drew you to become part of the cast?
FH: The first time Rodney presented the play, I accompanied my godmother, Albertina Walker, to the show. I also sang a selection. That’s how I came to be part of the production.
A lot of what I learned about gospel music came through Albertina. She would give me the blow by blow, like how Mahalia Jackson helped mentor her in some of the groups she was in, and how they would hang out at her house and share stories and events that happened in her life. I believe that helped shape how the Caravans and the Barrett Sisters, and all the groups that came behind them, presented themselves as gospel artists. In turn, Albertina gave some of that knowledge to me. She taught me how we should open ourselves up to change, but always come back to the root of gospel.
TBGB: Mr. Lewis, what was the response when you first premiered the play?
RL: It was like lightning in a bottle! The response was immediate and viral. We started at Victory Gardens Theater, and we were to do a six-week run. The newspapers came out to see it first and the television stations were right behind them. When the reviews appeared, it was such an unbelievable reaction, because the show was so different. The audience grew up on the songs and was singing along. We’d see the same people in the audience week after week! So
ended up moving us to a bigger
theater. We also had invitations from
theaters all around Victory Gardens Chicago after our extended run ended. Victory Gardens
The Governor of Illinois at the time came to see the show, as did Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon and Les Brown. The Governor recommended us to represent
and then the United States,
in music festivals around the world.
Our first international tour was based on this recommendation. Les Brown and Rev. Dr. Colemon put it
in our ear that we should take the show on tour. Les Brown had us follow him on the road. Whenever he would go into a city to do a motivational presentation, we would bring the show. I learned how to promote the
show independently, and we kept it going all over the United States
TBGB: Ms. Howard, what do you think it will be like working with Vickie Winans?
FH: She is so comical, so funny, she is just a ball of energy and an amazing talent. I look up to her. She is very business-minded as well as spiritual and talented. It will be a pleasure working with her. I’m looking forward to it.
TBGB: You mentioned the tribute to Albertina. I’m sure it has special meaning for you.
FH: It certainly does. Not only was Albertina the Queen of Gospel Music, she was my godmother. She believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, and she pushed me to excel, not only for me, but for what I believe in.
The song she recorded with Johnnie Colemon’s choir, “The Impossible Dream,” she recorded that with
, where the play
will be held. So it holds a lot of
emotion and meaning for me to find myself back there. To be a part of this play is wonderful because I know Albertina would be proud to know that I’m carrying on. Christ Universal
TBGB: How did you identify the other cast members? Are they part of the touring company or did you pick up members in certain cities as you toured?
RL: We picked up some new people to fill in some voices and acting, but the core of the original touring company will return for these performances. They are an amazing group: spiritual, talented, committed to this project, and to each other. It’s like a family. Our rehearsals are so much fun, it doesn’t seem like rehearsal, but just like people enjoying each other’s company.
TBGB: I understand there is a Memorial Day Weekend salute to veterans and current military personnel, and that the Boeing Company is partnering with you on that.
RL: Originally our plan was to pay tribute to
Brigadier General Ronald Lewis, who was the first from his West
Point class to make the rank of Brigadier General. But the idea grew from there. We wanted to invite veterans and active
military personnel to come to the show so we could pay homage to them as well. The Boeing Company donated a thousand tickets
to veterans and active military personnel here in Chicago to be our special guests on Saturday,
May 26. Brigadier General Lewis will
appear via satellite from Afghanistan;
it will be a special evening.
TBGB: Ms. Howard, what song from the show is your favorite?
FH: There are so many songs, it’s hard to choose just one, but if I had to pick, it would be “Joy Will Come.” It was a staple for Albertina, one of the songs that I believe she’s well known for. There are so many hymns and old songs that we just don’t hear as much anymore. I’m grateful to the cast and to this play because it helps us reflect and acknowledge the bridge that has brought us to where we are today. It should never be forgotten.
TBGB: Are all of the songs familiar gospel songs, or are there songs written specifically for the play?
RL: They are all songs that everyone knows and loves. They are the classics and favorites we grew up on. They are our heritage. We want to introduce these songs to a new generation so they are not forgotten.
FH: I have noticed a lot of young people who are hungry for this music. They’re looking at it through brand new eyes, like “Where is this coming from?” It’s been here all along, but along the way we have been introduced to praise and worship—and I love it all—but we need to connect the youth to the traditional ways, as well.
TBGB: Will there be a soundtrack album someday?
RL: We haven’t approached it that way. You may have just planted a great idea! The time for something like that is here. The compilation albums out now have a contemporary slant, so maybe the time has come for a traditional gospel compilation album.
TBGB: Where will the show head after
RL: We have been asked to bring it to
We have also been invited to do a series of churches in New York, and we’re certainly going to take
advantage of that opportunity. We
didn’t know how long we were going to mount the play again, but based on
demand, it looks like we’ll be doing it a few more times.
Individual tickets for A Piece of My Soul (The Anthology of Gospel) are available at www.lewispro.com, and from the Christ Universal Temple Box Office at (773) 568-2282. Group tickets are available by calling (708) 955-2678.