By Bryson David Hoff
Blue Man Group. Stomp. Riverdance.
It’s hard to deny that America has long had a place in its heart for this nameless genre of theatre that rides that line between musical theatre, concert and performance art. The kind of thing that proves surprisingly difficult to describe when you’re asked to describe it at the office water cooler on Monday morning. DJEMBE! The Show, currently in residence at the Apollo Theater is seeking to create that kind of experience.
All in all, it’s got the right formula. The premise is simple enough: an ensemble of performers and musicians guide the audience through a sort of interactive musical history lesson concerning the proliferation of West African rhythms through the African Diaspora and into the modern age as embodied through the titular djembe drum. The novelty is that every seat in the theatre includes a djembe, and throughout the performance the audience is educated in the basics of playing it and invited to participate in the music making.
It is this participatory aspect that gives Djembe a unique “in” to this market. You get to experience the same sense of spectacle and wonder at precision as you would at something like Riverdance, but you don’t get to strap on a pair of tap shoes and try it yourself. The ability to retain the spectacle while also, to a degree, demystifying the art form is simple: Playing the djembe is easy to do, but extremely difficult to do well.
To their immense credit Writer/Director West Hyler and his collaborator Doug Manuel have done an exceptional job of portioning out listening and participating segments of the show. The audience never gets a chance to get bored or too tired (though, as the show itself acknowledges, it’s pretty unavoidable for your hands to get a little tender from djembe-playing). This makes the lack of an intermission a pretty solid non-issue. Indeed, adding an intermission would be to let the air out of the room.
Setting the participation element aside, the show is genuinely very clever and heartfelt in its subject matter. The amount of love for the music and the culture is evident in the writing and, to its immense credit, it does a good job of educating its audience on this element of music history. Pretty much anyone who knows a small amount about the development of musical styles could tell you, for instance, that jazz came about through the combination of European harmonies and African rhythms, but it’s hard to conceptualize that fact until you have “Sing Sing Sing” playing with West African percussion instruments in place of a drum kit.
There’s little to criticize about Djembe, as it succeeds very well on the terms that it sets itself as a piece of entertainment. It is neither less nor more than what it aspires to be. That said, it does seem a bit odd that of the cast of three speaking performers, only one, Fodé Lavia Camara, is West African. The djembe is such a large part of a vibrant and beautiful culture that grew in a part of the world that has had more than its fair share of misfortune. While the talents of the American performers are undeniable and they have an obvious love and respect for the culture, it’s hard to keep questions of authenticity from coming to mind. Ultimately, that’s part of a much larger discussion within the cultural landscape and one that this review is in no way qualified to rule on one way or the other, but it’s still an issue that feels worth mentioning.
Still, the bottom line is that Djembe succeeds on the most fundamental element for a show of its genre; it’s just a plain fun experience for the audience. It ticks the boxes of novelty, spectacle and broad-based appeal that have made the predecessors listed at the beginning of this review and its format makes it an easy sell for a group outing. Should the Apollo wish to extend, they could easily establish a similar arrangement to the one the Briar Street Theatre has with Blue Man Group.
The Apollo Theater presents “DJEMBE! The Show through June 9.” More information and tickets are available here.