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Book and lyrics by Ntozake Shange, Joseph Shabalala, and Eric Simonson

Directed by Eric Simonson

Produced by Crossroads Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater to May 19

The opening-night response to the new musical, Nomathemba, was odd, if telling. A rousing standing ovation lasted literally a few seconds as people started murmuring and spilling out of the Eisenhower Theater, heads bowed. There was no opportunity for Ladysmith Black Mambazo to take a well-deserved second bow to the emptying house.

The mass departure was swifter than the usual exodus from the Kennedy Center to the suburbs. I wondered if the audience had experienced the same ambivalence I felt toward the musical: With its richly visceral music, it should have soared—but it didn’t.

Despite the haunting and radiant music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Nomathemba stops short of transcendence. The narrative is based on an evocative song about unrequited love composed by the leader of Ladysmith 30 years ago. What the story needs, though, is writing as powerful and richly layered as Joseph Shabalala’s lyrics. Instead, much of the language is lackluster, and it is the musicians and the talented actors who keep the slim play going.

The first scene does offer a sweet prelude to the love-girl/lose-girl/find-girl story set in a small village in today’s South Africa. Nomathemba and her suitor, Bongani, speak of love as they sit entwined under a desert tree, but the disarmingly beautiful Nomathemba also speaks of a new South Africa and her appetite for discovering urban life outside her village. “It’s all up to us,” she says. “No one is telling us what to do.” Bongani tries to distract her from her wanderlust with his abiding love for her and his responsibility for cattle and property at home. She looks not at him but at the horizon in the distance.

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The scene comes to a close, and Joseph Shabalala appears. His grand entrance after the musical’s first scene foreshadows his loving but heavy-handed role throughout the musical. In fact, the musical is so much Shabalala’s baby it is sometimes painful to see him on stage: He is the proud, expectant father, watching up close. He is conceiver, co-writer, lyricist, actor, musician, dancer, and narrator. He sometimes watches scenes, lurking in the background, emoting for the audience all the while. Other times he is the grand storyteller, connecting the events. Sometimes his strong, graceful presence is welcome, even poignant; other times it is grating. It’s as if the play comes with both guardian angel and chaperone.

For example, in a rather abrupt turn that interrupts the flow of the musical, Shabalala segues briefly into a musical concert. He introduces himself, and a wildly enthusiastic audience returns his salutation. It all seems rather gratuitious, since this is allegedly a set theater piece and everyone knows who he is. Then he introduces his group (more applause) before they sing the ballad Shabalala wrote 30 years ago about a woman named Nomathemba who has left her lover. (The song inspired the modernized musical.)

The interruption is redeemed, however, when Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs an exquisite rendition of the ballad, accompanied by the group’s signature dance, a fierce soft-shoe that underscores and deepens its music. The traditional music and dance the group has made so popular is called isthatamaya. The form was created by South Africa’s miners, who referred to themselves as “tiptoe guys”: You can see in Shabalala’s choreography how the strong, percussive dances were once choreographed so as not to disturb the miner-camp security guards.

The entire ensemble joins Ladysmith Black Mambazo on stage as the music and dance become more pitched and exhilarating. Soon the group is celebrating a traditional Zulu wedding, and we are returned to the narrative at hand. The festivities are a turning point for Nomathemba as she watches the couple’s happiness and decides it is not her own. The lovers Nomathemba and Bongani argue: “When I hold you, you never argue with me,” beseeches Bongani. “You think you can walk all over me like an elephant…,” spits Nomathemba. She tells him she’d rather go to the city than share him with wife No. 2 and wife No. 3, then whirls away from him in a dizzying turn and starts running to join the new South Africa.

Cee-Cee Harshaw, who plays Nomathemba, is sheer joy in motion, delightfully carrying the narrative through its weakest joints. Her expressive, mischievous, energetic presence helps to move this morality tale along. We see the new South Africa through her naive eyes. Of course she is mesmerized by the cities of Johannesburg and Durban before she nearly drowns in the strong currents of modern misery—unemployment, poverty, and crime. Her friend Sissy, played by the equally talented Bernadette Clark, helps to keep them both out of danger and financially afloat for a time.

Ladysmith’s music and dancing are by turns dark and glorious. It is Nomathemba’s modern fable that lacks resonance. Bongani’s long odyssey of self-discovery as he searches for his beloved is strung with vignettes of danger and sadness, yet his words fall out of his mouth, and land without much impact. Some spoken phrases that become the refrains of songs are also lacking: “Like my country, I’m adjusting my perimeters,” Nomathemba sings.

Eric Simonson, a playwright and artistic associate at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, collaborated with Shabalala on his dream of taking his first composition and making it a musical. Simonson first heard “Nomathemba” when he was rehearsing The Song of Jacob Zulu with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1992. In an essay, he describes the difficulties of creating this musical: “This was the first time I’d been given the challenge of creating a full-length play from a few lines of a song lyric.”

Simonson hired Ntozake Shange to create charged, in-your-face poetry that would help shape the musical. Yet the writing in Nomathemba rarely lives up to the bold poetry Shange is known for. When she wrote the spectacular theater-dance piece for colored girls…who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Shange changed the rules for musicals, dance, and theater. As engaging as Nomathemba is, it does not approach the seamless stream of dance and language that is the essence of for colored girls.

There are a few episodes where the beauty of the language prevails in a way that deepens the story and complements Ladysmith’s mystical music. In one moving scene, Bongani sees a young woman sitting under a tree. Covered in a striped blanket, she rocks back and forth, and her moans pierce the air. Her family and home have been devastated by marauders. In her monologue, Lila speaks of “one flash of white noise” that destroyed her family, leaving her baby’s fingers on Lila. Lila is the wide-eyed specter that reminds the ensemble and the audience of the violent terror that is not yet far behind them. Yet most of the play is missing a knowing sense of the brutal violence—beyond the petty thievery and thugs that the Gidgetlike Nomathemba keeps at bay—that still seethes under the surface of peace in South Africa.CP