Four years ago, director Eric Simonson was developing The Song of Jacob Zulu with Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and noticed that the famed South African musical troupe would sing a particular song in their native Zulu during warm-ups and rehearsals. One day he asked leader Joseph Shabalala what the song meant. The leader of the troupe replied that the song, which he'd written 30 years ago, was about a young African who goes in search of his fiancée who has run away. "Let's make a play out of it," suggested Simonson. To which Shabalala replied, "That's amazing because 20 years ago, I dreamed that I would make a play out of this song."
The result is Nomathemba ("Hope"), written by Shabalala, Simonson and Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf), which is playing the Kennedy Center through May 19. The engagement at the Eisenhower Theatre follows a world premiere at Steppenwolf last year and a showcase at N.J.'s Crossroads Theatre Company, which is co-producing the show.
"The focus in the show is really on relationships; it's really more about the two lovers and the people and strangers they encounter on the road," says the director. "But the piece also serves as a metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa. The theme is not to give up hope. People in a changing society will expect changes, but changes don't happen overnight. There will be upheaval and hard times, but the point is to remain faithful to the future."
Simonson and Shange saw a glimpse of the future when they accepted Shabalala's invitation to visit South Africa. The three workshopped the play at the state-subsidized Natal Performing Arts Center, working with eight young Zulu actors and Mambazo to sketch out the play's beginning. When the show moved to Chicago, it was recast with American actors, except for the Ugandan-born Ntare Mwine.
"When we did Jacob Zulu, a lot of the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo had never set foot in a theatre," said Simonson of the troupe that rocketed to fame as a collaborator on Paul Simon's Grammy Award-winning Graceland. "They've gotten over their shyness, and many of them are playing real characters, especially Shabalala, as opposed to Jacob Zulu when they acted as a Greek chorus."
The director is at pains to downplay the polemical aspects of the piece, noting that the most "subversive" thing one might do with a South African play is to shuttle the politics aside in favor of the love story. "People expect to get a theatre of protest in works from South Africa, and when those expectations are blown, then people get upset," says Simonson. "But in this, the politics are really the backdrop."
Yet, the director concedes that to be born in South Africa is to be political. There is little escaping the nation-building that is now going on in South Africa and some of the tough choices on the part of both races that must be made in order to ease the growing pains. "I suppose, the work has a very Brechtian feel to it in that way," says Simonson. "It's very specific of who these people are, but the polemics come not from the people but from what happens to them on their journey. And, in that regard, Nomathemba transcends boundaries and cultures to become universal."-- By Patrick Pacheco