Hell is for Heroes
Barbara & Scott tell Nothing But the Truth about John Kani and shake the blues away with Maude Maggart at the Oak Room.
The inspiration of John Kani's Nothing But the Truth, now playing in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is to explore the tension between the life of an ordinary man and the charisma of a hero. In the process, Kani makes a passionate defense for the ultimate heroism of the little man. It's this theme that American audiences will respond to first and foremost in this play set in South Africa.
The story revolves around Sipho (Kani), the 63-year-old brother of a South African freedom fighter. Sipho's the man who stayed home and paid the bills, and he paid some of them in the currency of tears. Now his brother, who had fled South Africa long ago to save his life, is dead. His body is being returned from London for burial; but jealousies, resentments, and secrets will be exhumed before Sipho's brother and his legacy are finally laid to rest.
Originally produced in Johannesburg, the play has a deeply rooted political point of view. It's set in 2000 during the trials of apartheid criminals, when the country's policy was to forgive those who made a full confession. Forgive murder, rape, and torture? That could not have been easy. In a subplot, there is much anguish over the earlier death of Sipho's son, who was shot by the police during the struggle for freedom. Sipho blames his late brother for inspiring the recklessness that led to the boy's death. In fact, he blames his late brother for many things. But this is the time to bury those feelings -- or, at least, that's one of the play's themes.
Nothing But the Truth is sometimes soap opera-ish with uneven plotting, and the direction is jarringly out of kilter. Nonetheless, there's so much power in certain passages that we are moved despite the clumsiness of the piece. In large part, its emotional impact comes from John Kani's stunning performance as Sipho. When his character finally unleashes his true feelings near the end of the play, it's as if a storm is thundering on the stage of the Newhouse. The sequence is so searing that it works despite Janice Honeyman's odd directing choice of having Kani address the audience rather than the ashes of his brother, to whom he is ostensibly speaking. Warona Seane ably supports Kani as his loyal daughter and Esmeralda Bihl is effectively bratty as his troublesome niece, but the play belongs to Kani as much for his acting as his writing.
The Big Break
Show business people are famous for their generosity, frequently giving of themselves in benefit performances of every size and description. Some of them are less generous about giving up the spotlight to other performers. It's particularly refreshing, therefore, to see a star of the magnitude of Andrea Marcovicci mentoring the young, up-and-coming cabaret artist Maude Maggart. Marcovicci humbly notes that she's not the first established artist to put this singer forward; Michael Feinstein previously featured her in his act. After making her warm and gracious comments to the audience at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, Marcovicci stepped aside and did, indeed, give the spotlight to her young protégé.
Maggart has a very specific sound. It's a high warble that bespeaks the 1920s, which is no doubt why her act is called Shaking the Blues Away: A 1920's Cabaret. Her sweet and delicate sound works beautifully in lacy, romantic ballads; she is out of her depth, however, in more dramatic numbers like "Love for Sale" and "Ten Cents a Dance." Part of the problem is her youth, and part of the problem is the fact that her voice doesn't naturally lend itself to drama. As her career continues, she will have to carefully vary her song selections and arrangements in order not to sound too much the same in every number. She does that successfully early in her Oak Room act, pulling off a sly and sexy "How Could Red Riding Hood." She uses her voice for comic effect in that number and again, even more broadly, later in the show in "Dangerous Nan McGrew." Comedy suits her, and she would be wise to do more of it.
Poised and quite polished, Maggart has learned much from Marcovicci. She plays the difficult Oak Room much the way Marcovicci does, to the point of walking out into the audience. Like a young painter who practices by copying the work of masters, so does Maggart copy her mentor's mannerisms. She must eventually develop her own performance persona more fully but, in the meantime, she's off to a strong start. You can see for yourself; her upcoming play dates at the Oak Room are January 12 and February 1 & 2.