“Dreaming Zenzile”, a bio-musical by Makeba

Somi as Miriam Makeba in Dreaming Zenzile.
Photo: Charles Erickson

It’s not a good sign when you open your program during intermission to answer the question How did it get here? — but I was there as soon as the lights came on. On the one hand, the musical Dream Zenzile doesn’t seem like it belongs in downtown New York Theater Workshop (small room acoustics make spoken sections inaudible); on the other hand, it seems unfinished despite obvious musical virtuosity, long development and an encyclopedic list of producing partners. These include NYTW, Octopus Theatricals, National Black Theatre, Arts Emerson, McCarter Theater Center, Apollo Theater and Repertory Theater of St. Louis. It’s a plot of co-production. Yet somewhere in this whole collaboration, Somi Kakoma’s bio-musical about great South African singer Zenzile Miriam Makeba slipped through the cracks.

According to the program note, it was born out of a memorial concert: After Makeba’s death in 2008 – her heart was broken during a concert – Kakoma, an acclaimed jazz singer and songwriter who goes by Somi, organized a large-scale multi-musician tribute. This, so, is a descendant of that historic event, and every time you can mistake to experience the show purely as a concert (usually in the middle of a song), there is tremendous strength and beauty in it. The second program note is by Somi herself. She emphasizes self-discovery: “Writing Dream Zenzile has been a deeply personal journey that perpetually requires me to also reflect on my life as a black woman, an African voice and an artist.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a deep conflict between the fact that the series is a portrait-tribute and this more personal pursuit. There are certainly many of Somi on stage: She plays the star, and her own songs crowd uncomfortably against those originally performed by Makeba. Her voice isn’t particularly reminiscent of the flexible sound of Makeba’s half-cry, but it does have its own rich valences – a hooting whale-song resonance at the bottom of its range, a fluid smoothness at the top. That sound quality, however, can’t hide how new it is to creating and shaping a dramatic event. (Her much more experienced theater director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, doesn’t seem to have helped her enough.)

The framing device is its main problem. During a re-enactment of Makeba’s last concert, four sangoma characters – ancestors, ritual healers and psychopomps all in white – tell us that they have come to bring the singer home. In Xhosa, zenzile means “you did it to yourself”, and the chorus of spirits assures Makeba that she must do even death to herself. They won’t take her until she’s ready. “Aren’t you tired, my child? they ask. “Tired of fighting for a destiny you’ve already fulfilled. / Tired of fighting. This kind of syrupy talk is confusing and, repeated for two and a half hours, absurd. According to the musical itself, Makeba did not actually fight his fate, which in this hagiography was either vocal excellence or political efficiency or both. More the sangoma the chorus flatters her, the less we trust them, which is a problem since they lead her through loosely staged memories – quick recaps of childhood struggle, falling in love with jazz, early marital abuse, adventure later marital (with Stokely Carmichael), anti-apartheid activism — all while singing.

Zenzil manages to avoid one of the usual pitfalls of musical biographical portraiture. “Like a Wikipedia page set to music” we complain about everything that follows the historical record, which is an odd insult considering the pleasure of reading Wikipedia. What we mean is that there is too often a shortness of “this happened, then this other basically equivalent thing happened” about dramatic cradle-to-grave structures, a tendency to move in lists rather than stories. Kakoma solves this problem by skipping a lot (even the highlights) and whispering through the rest. We rarely get a sense of the political risks Makeba took, other than the reminder that she was barred from South Africa upon the death of her mother and a brief mention of an American exile. I didn’t even know which of the songs had been by Makeba, or where she performed them, or what they meant to the world or to her.

Clarity might not be the point, not in something with “dreaming” in the title. As hard as it is for me to believe, perhaps it’s intentional that sound designer Justin Ellington always chooses poise over sharpness, which allows for so much incomprehensibility. In the second half of the show, Makeba’s marriage to Carmichael happens at lightning speed, and she tells him, caressingly, “Someone once told me that I pick men like some pick fruit.” It’s true. You are my fourth husband. He is? Did she marry other people and I missed it? And… why does she need to tell him that he is #4? She speaks only to us; logic falters.

Even though we are in a dream, Makeba’s true presence seems too distant. Perhaps this disconnect stems from Somi playing Mama Afrika as an uncertain doe-eyed character, asking a ghost of her mother “Am I ready?” Am I enough? as she steps into the spotlight for her first performance in New York. No no no. By the time Makeba came to New York, she was already an accomplished star, unlikely to balk in front of an audience. Somi’s overaction in these moments, amplified by certain sometimes caricatural performances of the chorus, exaggerates what initially seems false.

Still, the music is wonderful. There’s a dramatic sequence, for example, as Somi is offstage changing for the curtain call, when the remaining singers do an ecstatic number with the band, swapping beats and melodic lines, laughing at antics of the other (the drummer throwing his drumsticks in the air), hoisting the room’s emotions behind them like a huge sail. The elation of this makes up for much of what has gone before. And Somi, the sangoma the choir (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola and the amazing Makeba-esque Phindi Wilson) and instrumentalists (Toru Dodo, Pathé Jassi, Hervé Samb and Sheldon Thwaites) are some of the best musicians performing in New York. the chance to hear them, even in a failed musical, is a gift. Part of this gift…you can buy. Somi recorded an album titled “Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba”. It’s lovely. In fact, I’m listening to it, dancing in my seat, as I write this review.

Dream Zenzile is at the New York Theater Workshop until June 26.

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