Review of Dreaming Zenzile at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

    When people ask me what’s at the Rep now, I reply, “A musical about Miriam Makeba.” I have been surprised at how many people have responded, “Who?”  Not just people born in this millennium. People not that much younger than me. Boomers. Did they not listen to the radio in the ’50s and ’60s? Watch TV? Read the newspapers?

    The Rep’s production of Dreaming Zenzile is not exactly a musical, though it certainly has music. I’m not sure what it is. The stage is almost bare. A light bridge stretches across it about half way upstage. A few chairs and some musical instruments are waiting all the way upstage, up against a fabric drop. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernadez chose a somewhat reflective scrim for the lower part of the drop. Lighting designs by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski play on the upper part. 

    But this bare stage is loaded with talent. The instrumental musicians upstage are Herve Samb, music director and lead guitar; Toru Dodo, piano; Pathe Jessi, electric and upright bass; and Sheldon Thwaites, percussion. They are all very fine. Two women and two men, Naledi Masilo, Phindile Wilson, Aaron Marcellus, and Phumzile Sojola, form the Sangoma Chorus. They sing, they dance, they play people in Makeba’s life, and they do it all splendidly. Somi Nakoma wrote Dreaming Zenzile – the word is Makeba’s original South African name – and she plays Makeba. She, too, can sing and dance and act. Hers is a powerful performance. 

    I am less comfortable with her script. As the bare-bones staging and the small cast suggest, Dreaming Zenzile is more a pageant piece than a play or a musical. The incidents from Makeba’s life, some quite dramatic, are well and clearly staged by director Lileana Blain-Cruz.  Much of the character development and the emotional flow of the piece come from the 27-some songs, as they properly should in the story of a great singer. Marjani Forte-Saunders’ choreography for the songs enriches and delights. But many of the songs are in a South African language. That means that for me and for most of the audience here, the songs can contribute very little to the story-telling or to character development. We don’t know what they are saying. Even the English dialogue suffers sometimes because the cast always give a South African turn to the lines’ pronunciation and rhythms. I would have appreciated titles.

    With attractive and practical costume designs by Mimi Plange and sound designs by Justin Ellington and Bill Kirby, audiences can rejoice in the music and the dancing in Dreaming Zenzile. But with a tighter narrative structure, the pleasure could be even greater.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by T. Charles Erickson