By Colin Douglas
Ever since Paul Simon’s much loved and greatly lauded “Graceland,” a record album, released in 1986, the South African musical group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been enjoyed by thousands of fans. Their velvety harmonics, gentle rhythmic choreography and a cappella performances are, ironically, both stimulating and soothing to the ear. The group has recorded over seventy albums and has earned five Grammy Awards. Called “South Africa’s Ambassadors to the World” by Nelson Mandela, this wonderful group of nine singers have a gorgeous sound that’s unmistakable.
Lindiwe, a new play with music, now having its premiere in Chicago, is their third collaboration with Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson. It joins the company’s renowned, 1992 production of The Song of Jacob Zulu, which later transferred to Broadway in a Tony-nominated production; and Nomathemba, another love story, which Chicago audiences enjoyed at Steppenwolf in 1995, and later played the Kennedy Center. Co-directed by Simonson and the always astute Jonathan Berry, this new drama is a modern adaptation of an African folktale. It overflows with love, drama, poetry and unexpected humor.
It’s been said that there are only seven different plots in the world of literature, and that every culture shares them with their own unique versions of stories. This play shares a few familiar elements in common with both Hans Christian Andersen and Greek mythology. The play’s two protagonists, both of whom are musicians, meet in Chicago, fall in love and fall victims to an auto accident. One of the characters has to give up her beautiful voice, as in The Little Mermaid, in order to save her lover; the couple then end up bargaining with The Keeper, an all-powerful God of Death. He argues, tricks, provokes and provides the couple with options, ultimately sending them on a journey to and from the Underworld. The pilgrimage taken by Lindiwe and her lover Adam is reminiscent of Broadway’s current Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, Hadestown. So, once again, everything old is new again.
Nondumiso Tembe, the lovely leading title character in this musical myth, has the voice of an angel. She plays Lindiwe, a South African singer who tours and sings with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. While performing in Chicago, Lindiwe chances to meet Adam, a charismatic aucasian drummer, with whom she falls in love. Erik Hellman plays this charming, somewhat nerdy fella, with an easy-going personality that charms Nondumiso. He provides a nice contrast to the passionate Ms. Tembe. Together they perform jazz and blues music at Chicago venues, like the Kingston Mines. But, as often the case with every couple, their differences begin to overtake their similarities. Soon the couple begins to argue, which results in a deadly car crash.
The evil Keeper, portrayed with sneering relish, a dash of humor and a whole lot of bravdo, is well-played by Yasen Peyankov. Clad in a majestically-fitted black bodice, a floor-length skirt, flared and a pair of imposing steel-toed boots, creatively designed by Karin Kapischke, The Keeper wields his magic power through a long, silver-tipped staff. An impressive presence, he often appears somewhere along a massive balcony, or skittering down a circular staircase, eventually claiming the stage as his own, all designed by Collette Pollard. Other than a few moveable pieces of furniture, and a crumbling proscenium, Pollard’s scenic design is stark and sparse. The magical moments are made stronger through Marcus Doshi’s wild lighting, which is made even more effective by the dramatic sound design created by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
Two other versatile actors play most of the other characters in this story. As Adam’s quirky Aunt Clarisse, as well as a hospital nurse, a waitress and a groupie/backup singer and dancer, the wonderful Jennifer Engstrom is delightful and a real chameleon of a character actor. Her goofy characters often provide many of the laughs in this show. Cedric Young returns to Steppenwolf in the role of Tembe’s kindly Grandfather, Mkhulu. Young also doubles as Jeffrey, the singer’s manager, as well as a doctor. Both actors add much to the production.
But the evening belongs to the internationally known choral group known as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their lush musical performances, often featuring the accompaniment of exquisite vocalist, Tembe, is the draw. Seeing and hearing this troupe of talented singers, who perform primarily in the Zulu vocal styles of Isicathamiya and Mbube, is a life-changing experience. That the music is set against a smart, imaginative folktale, created by Simonson, makes this a satisfying two hours of entertainment that will beguile audiences of all ages.
Steppenwolf Theatre presents “Lindiwe” through January 5 at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.