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Review: Dreaming Zenzile Brings South African Singer Miriam Makeba to the Off-Broadway Stage

Somi Kakoma's new musical closes the season at New York Theatre Workshop.

Somi Kakoma wrote and stars in Dreaming Zenzile, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© T Charles Erickson)

Long before the advent of Twitter, Miriam Makeba was a target of cancel culture. Born and raised it South Africa and an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime, the singer discovered that her South African passport had been canceled only when attempting to return home for her mother's funeral in 1960. Later, she would face scrutiny by the US government for her association with Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, whom she married.

No matter. There were other places to live: Makeba resided in Guinea and Belgium when she wasn't on tour, which was rare. And she is reported to have held passports from nine different countries during her life, plenty to ease the friction of regular international travel.

It wasn't government sanction that seemed to most perturb Makeba, but her exclusion from the marketplace of culture by the people who owned the stalls: "It was not a ban from the government," she told The Guardian in 2008, shortly before her death. "It was a cancellation by people who felt I should not be with Stokely because he was a rebel to them. I didn't care about that. He was somebody I loved, who loved me, and it was my life."

That love, and Makeba's determination to live her life on her terms, both come through loud and clear in the tribute musical Dreaming Zenzile, written and performed by Somi Kakoma at New York Theatre Workshop in a co-production with National Black Theatre. Unfortunately, other aspects of the book are fuzzier, resulting in an uneven drama buoyed along by Makeba's irresistible music and Kakoma's powerful vocal performance.

Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Somi Kakoma (center), Phindi Wilson, and Aaron Marcellus appear in Kakoma's Dreaming Zenzile, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© T Charles Erickson)

From the first note, a sustained vowel in the opening number "Iph'indlela," we know we're in good hands, and Kakoma is in exceptionally good voice. It is pure and bright, conveying the joy of a clear horizon full of endless possibilities (an image beautifully visualized by Hannah Wasileski's projections and Yi Zhao's concert lighting). It's also a bit of a fake-out considering Makeba's sun is about to set.

This is her final performance, the 2008 concert organized by anti-mafia crusader Roberto Saviano at which Makeba died of a heart attack. That concert frames the story, as a supernatural Sangoma Chorus (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, and Phindi Wilson) attempts to hurry her along to the next world. A true professional, Makeba won't leave the stage until she finishes her set, recounting her life story in the process.

Wearing a spectacular African dress (costumes by Mimi Plange), Kakoma paints a vivid, often impressionistic portrait of Makeba's life as a girl in South Africa: fetching water from the well, dodging white police officers, listening to American jazz records, and always singing. Under the dynamic but often confusing direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the chorus slips in and out of the roles of family members and other significant figures in her life, like her first husband Gooli (a frightening Sojola). Makeba flees his abuse to the promise of the big city (Johannesburg) where she embarks on a musical career, meeting the filmmaker Lionel Rogosin who casts her in his movie and flies her to Venice. She doesn't realize at the time that this is the beginning of decades of exile.

Phumzile Sojola, Somi Kakoma, and Phindi Wilson appear in the off-Broadway debut of Dreaming Zenzile.
(© T Charles Erickson)

That's where the first act ends, forcing the bulk of Makeba's career into an hour of the whirlwind second act. We bounce from the Village Vanguard to a UN meeting on apartheid to street protests to the sun-soaked veranda of a presidential palace in Guinea.

""Papa Touré welcomes us with open arms," Stokely Carmichael (Aaron Marcellus) lovingly refers to their host, the dictator responsible for imprisoning, torturing, and murdering thousands of his political opponents (although, I'm sure he was much kinder to foreign celebrities).

"You are my fourth husband," she informs Carmichael as much as the audience, and we get a palpable sense of just how much has been glossed over. Then the two sing a simmering rendition of "Love Tastes Like Strawberries." We're relived when it comes, not just to luxuriate in the sexy performance, but to have a chance to catch our breaths.

One unfortunate result of Makeba's blacklisting in the States is that her work and life story is not as familiar to American audiences as, say, those of Tina Turner or Michael Jackson. That gives the book writer some responsibility to not only tell her story clearly, but to place it in the context of the social and political movements of her day. Kakoma fails on both fronts, penning a scattershot biography that gives up halfway through. While we are repeatedly told that Makeba was a leading voice in the fight against apartheid, no stage time is spared for South Africa's transition to democracy in the '90s.

Naledi Masilo, Phindi Wilson, Aaron Marcellus, Somi Kakoma, and Phumzile Sojola appear in Dreaming Zenzile at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© T Charles Erickson)

Kakoma makes up for the deficiencies of the book with dazzling performances of Makeba's songs, delivered by both her and her supporting cast: A heartbreaking rendition of "Milélé" follows a personal tragedy; Kakoma croons a beautiful "Malaika" and a haunting "House of the Rising Sun." She even makes the New York audience's ears prick up with a sweet and understated "Till There Was You" from The Music Man.

Music director Hervé Samb leads the band and vocalists to arena-ready performances, and he is a delight to watch as he dances upstage with his guitar. Marjani Forté-Saunders makes sure that everyone else is moving beautifully with emotional, sweaty, energetic choreography (an ever-accelerating rendition of "Hapo Zamani" is a real highlight, and after watching Kakoma give 150 percent, we perfectly understand why this is the song that took Makeba out). In true Mamma Mia fashion, the cast sends us off with a delightful performance of "Pata Pata" during which it is impossible to stand still.

As far as jukebox musicals go, Dreaming Zenzile earns a B-: plenty of musical gems decorating a rough book. One suspects that Makeba — a stateless person who smashed through borders with her music — has a story that can do much more.

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