There are just under 400 seats, give or take a few, at Dodger Stages Stage 2, with one two-foot tom-tom waiting on each seat — "sitting there like little people," is how Drumstruck director David Warren thinks of it. When the real 400 people occupy those seats, the equation becomes 400 x 2 = 800 hands thumping away on those drumheads — with enthusiasm and mucho decibels — even before the start of the show. Then red-hatted Enock Bafana Mahlangu, dynamic member of the Ndebele tribe, steps front and center of his ten fellow South and West Africans and shows a packed-house New York audience how to really and rhythmically bang a drum.
"I don't know if you noticed," says Warren over an iced coffee in the plaza just outside the theatre, "but he gets 400 people drumming instantly — without his saying a word."
Yes, one notices that as well as the remarkable talent and timing among the other ten performers who have brought Drumstruck from Johannesburg to New York — not least the slim, stunning Ayanda, a proud young member of the Zulu tribe who, among much else, sings the "Jikele Maweni" of her idol, Miriam Makeba.
Ayanda was one of the miracles. Warren "created a role for a woman with certain talents before I knew such a woman existed. Ayanda walked into the room, and there she was. Somebody charismatic and beautiful and could sing well and speaks English, so as to guide us through the show — and she is blessed with all of the above." In fact, the Manhattan-born-and-bred director says, "They all speak English, some quite well and some not so well. South Africans speak 11 languages, while the only languages I speak are English and some Italian, which is not all that helpful." There is a man in Johannesburg named Warren Lieberman who has a Drum Café; that has since flowered into Drum Cafés all over the globe, and it is he who conceived the interactive Drumstruck and had the help of Kathy-Jo Ross in bringing it to the stage in 1997 at Johannesburg's Market Theatre.
The Dodgers heard about it, and three years ago sent David Warren, who had directed Barbra's Wedding and other shows for them — shows with words, not drums — to take a look at a production in Sydney, Australia. "I went, and was blown away. The power of the piece was apparent, but I also thought it had to be reconceived and made significantly more New York-ready."
That is what he's done. Halfway through the performance attended by this theatregoer, the fellow in the next seat — the Fortune Society's David Rothenberg — murmured what had at that same instant jumped into my own head: "It's going to run ten years."
"From your mouth to God's ears," says David Warren as he wings off to Italy to direct a very different sort of production. No drums, just words.