Regional Reviews: St. Louis
And at least the context is always clear: at the outset, a quartet of ancestors hail Miriam's birth in 1932, and before you know it she's winging her way through the Great American Songbook at the top of the 1950s jazz world in New York City. In between, in her childhood, the violent police raids of her township, the warrantless searches of her family's home, and the arrest of her mother for making home brew in the township of Prospect, near Johannesburg, become the great radicalizing events of her life. (Not to mention the fact that Miriam was 16 when apartheid officially began in South Africa in 1948.) But it gave her a mission, and her talent could not be held back. We follow Makeba's singing career as she's catapulted to world renown, eventually to be named a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations.p>In mid-career, she married jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela ("Grazing in the Grass") and became a protégé of Harry Belafonte, who lent her his own band for her first solo album and with whom she won a Grammy on a later record. And perhaps a greater badge of honor: she would subsequently draw the ire of J. Edgar Hoover for her marriage to Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers. He's played by Aaron Marcellus, with a beautiful onstage duet between them. But that marriage, in 1968, effectively exiled Makeba from the U.S.
Flashback to a decade before all of that, to when she'd already cut successful records with various groups. Then, at a major turning point, she made an appearance in the 1959 documentary Come Back, Africa, which garnered her an invitation to the Venice Film Festival and soon to jazz clubs including the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard in New York. She brought her silky, unreservedly soulful style to the West at just the right moment, when cool jazz and bebop were all the rage. And those American musical trends just happened to be in perfect harmony with her own vocal technique. So the rest, as they say, was history. (This also means you are perfectly within your rights to dig out your old porkpie hat and Wayfarers when you head to the Rep to see this show.) Makeba would go on to make an album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, and appear in the movie Sarafina! in the early 1990s.
It's all brought richly to life by Ms. Kakoma, beautiful in torment and in love, and by Lileana Blain-Cruz, who directs. The perfect, nearly non-stop swaying and swooning choreography is by Marjani Forté-Saunders. And perhaps it goes without saying that Ms. Kakoma's singing is astonishingly good, in act two being similar to Cesária Évora, as she sweeps the stage in a dramatic spaghetti-fringed dress. She's backed-up by a quartet of singers and dancers, including Phindile Wilson as her mother, and Naledi Masilo as her daughter, and musically accompanied by an onstage jazz foursome. Vast, dreamy, ultra-sharp projections echo the mood as they float across the cyclorama behind them for a mystical feel.
Usually a show like this gets slapped with a trigger warning onstage right beforehand (actually, there is a warning on the website), in this case for domestic violence, which comes during Makeba's marriage to her first husband, a Black South African policeman played by Phumzile Sojola. There's also startling strobe lighting to mark the cruel police searches and arrests in her childhood home. But the element of surprise in the pantomime beating and intense flashes of light add drama to this whirl of a "star is born" story. Later, she'll use her fame to help bring down apartheid and plead for world justice, until her death at a 2008 benefit concert in Italy.
Dreaming Zenzile runs about two hours and fifteen minutes, including an intermission. The audience is spaced-out physically, and face masks are required throughout. To my surprise, hardly anybody snuck out at intermission at the performance I attended, despite the comparatively non-traditional subject matter for the Rep: where white men (in days gone by) would thrust stark remorseless questions at other white men, like me. Now at last, that same power of judgment turns upon all of us. But that judgment is to love.
Dreaming Zenzile runs through October 3, 2021, on the Browning Main Stage at the Loretto Hilton Theatre, on the campus of Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.repstl.org or call 314-968-4925.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association