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Theatre in Review: Dreaming Zenzile (National Black Theatre/New York Theatre Workshop)

Somi Kakoma. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

One way of thinking about Dreaming Zenzile is that it is essentially a two-act death scene. Somi Kakoma's musical play focuses on the night in 2008 when the great Miriam Makeba suffered a fatal heart attack during a performance in Italy. As it begins, Makeba is chatting up the audience, preparing to launch into her first number when the stage is overtaken by four -- what? Spirits of the dead? Ghosts of the past? Backup singers from the beyond? Whoever they are -- they are known in the script as the Sangoma Chorus -- they intend to take the singer over the border that separates this world and the next. Instead, they hijack her show.

To be sure, Makeba is not ready to make that final transition. "All these beautiful people have come to see me tonight," she protests. "I can't disappoint them. The music, the show must go on!" And, indeed, it does, as the action lurches, uncertainly, between 2008 and the singer's past, with the members of the Sangoma Chorus standing in for her mother, daughter, husbands, and others.

It's a little surprising to see companies on the level of New York Theatre Workshop and National Black Theatre expending money and energy on a wobbly entry in the Dead Celebrity Playhouse genre. (The recent Little Girl Blue, in which Makeba's sometime colleague Nina Simone unravels onstage, is another example, but you can probably come up with a dozen more, going all the way back to Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.) Dreaming Zenzile has all the hallmarks: A cursory narrative, a lack of dramatic action, and an awkward framing device. Makeba tries to forge ahead with her show, but these four interlopers constantly pull her into scenes from her past; these are barely dramatized and often rendered in language perfumed with flowery abstractions. ("We are floating. An infinite heavy blue. Softness and salt. I'm happy you are choosing to build a home inside of the tide with me.") Makeba, portrayed as a woman of destiny, is often left stranded at stage center, a passive figure upstaged by the Sangoma Chorus.

This is a pity since Makeba, a major figure in twentieth century pop music, had a tumultuous life informed by politics and personal tragedy, the very stuff of drama. But Kakoma's script is little more than a collection of data points easily gleaned from a few minutes' reading on the Internet. She is the playwright as docent, quickly guiding us past exhibits that include the singer's poverty-ridden childhood under apartheid (she spent her first six months locked up with her unjustly imprisoned mother); her discovery of jazz and move to the US; her revoked citizenship and years of exile; her political activism and emergence as "Mama Africa," a symbol of anti-colonial resistance; and the loss of her daughter, Bongi, in childbirth. Two of her four marriages are covered, including her relationship with Stokely Carmichael, which made her persona non grata with American audiences. Their time together is portrayed as utterly idyllic, although in real life they separated after five years.

Even if Makeba's life story were more forcefully written it might not register strongly, thanks to Lileana Blain-Cruz's production, in which the chorus members swirl around the star -- the nonstop, often distracting, choreography is by Marjani Forté-Saunders -- stealing focus. (The melding of movement, music, and words suggests the intention to create a "choreopoem" along the lines of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, but the execution is muddy.) Thanks to a combination of poor enunciation and Justin Ellington's sound design, the dialogue and lyrics are frustratingly hard to make out. Some sequences -- such as Makeba's encounter with the director Lionel Rogosin, whose film, Come Back, Africa, made her internationally famous -- are practically over before one knows what is happening.

Kakoma, who also stars, has a striking, bell-like voice with some astonishing top notes and an insinuating lower register, but she is sometimes overwhelmed by the four-person band and her acting mostly consists of bland reactions to her fellow actors. It isn't until near the end, when she is allowed to deliver "Malaika," one of Makeba's standards, in a favorable arrangement and without that pesky Sangoma Chorus, that real gifts shine through. Shows like this usually climax in a big breakdown scene, in this case an outpouring of grief following Bongi's death that allows Kakoma to do some acting, poignantly suggesting the price Makeba paid in terms of political controversy and separation from her loved ones.

The uncertainty in Blain-Cruz's staging extends to the rather bland production design. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernández provides a simple band setup, including a screen on which projection designer Hannah Wasileski delivers pleasant, but often nondescript, images, including some sky and ocean views. Yi Zhao's lighting relies rather too heavily on sweep and strobe effects. Mimi Plange's costumes look to be accurately modeled on the singer's distinctive style.

It's too bad that this fine artist's tumultuous life hasn't received more compelling treatment. If you want to learn anything about Makeba, you'd do well to prep yourself with some supplementary online reading. Otherwise, don't expect much substance. Dreaming Zenzile passes like a dream, vanishing from one's mind as soon as it's over. --David Barbour

(9 June 2022)

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