Dreaming Zenzile, the musical that opened at New York Theatre Workshop this week, began as a tribute concert. And it probably should have stayed one.
The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre, is now a musical biography that its writer and star Somi Kakoma created to honor her idol, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba.
Kakoma has a lush, velvety voice, shares some of Makeba’s winning charisma and she looks terrific in the magnificent gowns that costume designer Mimi Plange created for her. But Kakoma’s dramaturgical chops are disastrously weak.
Dreaming Zenzile (the show takes its title from Makeba’s name in her native Xhosa language) opens at the 2008 concert during which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 76. As Kakoma's Makeba tries to resist four white-clad angels of death who have come to carry her away, significant moments in the singer's life flash before her eyes and ours.
It’s not a bad conceit for a show but there are several problems with the way it unfolds here. For starters, Makeba’s life story isn’t as familiar to most theatergoers as, say, Tina Turner’s is. So the fever-dream-style references to names and incidents just swirl by. And it doesn’t help that director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her actors speaking in over-emphasized African accents that make it difficult to understand what they’re saying.
There are stops for re-enactments of some of the more dramatic events but they tend to deal with now-tired tropes: the abusive husband, the racism that eats at the singer, the guilt of being an absentee parent.
There’s no doubt that these things happened to Makeba but similar things happened to Dinah Washington in the 1998 musical Dinah Was, to Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (for which Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony) to Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue which just completed a three-month off-Broadway run and to Tina Turner in her current namesake Broadway musical. So just saying that bad things happen to good and talented women is no longer enough.
With the exception of Tina all these woe-was-her shows tend to be modest affairs, performed with small casts on minimally designed stages. Dreaming Zenzile hews to type here too.
There’s a four-piece band onstage and a four-member ensemble who play everything from the angels of death to Makeba’s family, friends and fans over the decades. The actors are talented but they’re called on to morph so quickly from one character to another that I gave up trying to figure out who was who.
Of course most people come to these shows for the music, to hear the songs that evoke memories for them. Dreaming Zenzile is at a disadvantage here too. Makeba had some hits in the ‘60s, including “The Click Song” and “Pata Pata” but few are remembered today. And although she’s credited with helping to introduce Afro-pop to the the rest of the world, Makeba's songs, at least as presented here, don’t have the exuberance that so animated the hit 2009 musical Fela!
Some of the songs in Dreaming Zenzile are originals by Kakoma. But they didn’t jump out for me either. In fact, I found the Afro-pop recordings that played before the show and during the intermission more enjoyable than the tunes in Zenzile.
Lots of people left at intermission during the performance I attended. A few black people in the audience, including the two women sitting in front of me tried to create some supportive energy by swaying their shoulders and bopping their heads to the music but even they eventually ran out of steam.
As for me, I sat there thinking how much more we all might have enjoyed the show if Kakoma, who occasionally seemed to be out of breath after performing Marjani Forté-Saunders’ spirited choreography, had simply followed her first instinct and honored Makeba with the fine tribute concert that she certainly deserves.
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