Tales from The O'Neill: Goddess Casts a Spell of Music

By Sophia Saifi
July 16, 2013

Playbill.com offers a sneak peek at Goddess, a new musical being developed at the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.



Marimba is an African goddess of music. She is graceful and wise and traditionally considered to be the most beautiful woman to have walked the earth. Her songs are unlike anything humans have heard. Some are tales of loss and misfortune, but others pulsate with the ache of love. Cursed by darkness, Marimba created beauty from pain. Forging harps and drums from weapons used to kill, she created harmony from chaos. The more Marimba suffered, the more ethereal her songs became.

Her ancient tale, which has been passed down from generation to generation in West Africa, is now being told in a barn in Waterford, CT.

Goddess is the last of the three musicals to be developed at the National Music Theater Conference (NMTC) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. An African folk tale set in a contemporary jazz club, Goddess is a tale of revenge, lust, tradition and honor. According to Paulette Haupt, artistic director of the NMTC, Goddess is "one of the most beautiful love stories" she has ever read.

This romantic, yet bittersweet, story is the creation of a trio that consists of Mkhululi Z. Mabija, Michael Thurber and Saheem Ali. Mabija is from South Africa, Ali is from Kenya and Thurber is Michigan born and raised. According to Thurber, the differences in their backgrounds add to the richness of the story. 

"We have a difference in perspective that gives us the glue to deal with all of these different plots and some of them are really weighty," he said. "But we continue to mix them in, because they come from slightly different perspectives."

When Goddess is being performed, the band plays a delicious concoction of American and West African jazz and audiences tap their feet and softly click their fingers while goddesses sing songs filled with woe and wonder.

Jonathan Burke and Britney Coleman
Photo by A.Vincent Scarano
From the very first song, any cliche about modern-day Africa is dispelled. The writers have taken tropes of the so-called "dark" continent and mocked and subverted them. The Africa in Goddess is new and brilliant and traditions proudly walk hand-in-hand with modernity.

The inspiration for Goddess was found in Zulu folklorist Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa's book "Indaba My Children: African Folktales." Mabija calls it his "Bible" and he explained the importance of juxtaposing the modern ideas with ancient rituals.

"We didn't want people to think that Africa is loin clothes and wild animals. We want them to see that Africa today is very hip and very happening," he said.

Ali and Mabija had been working on Goddess before Thurber was involved. Ali was in New York while Mabija was based in South Africa, so they held meetings at odd hours online to perfect the script. Thurber was a friend of Ali's, and he was invited to a reading for his opinion.

"I had invited Mike as a friend to come and listen to it and give his opinion and see what he thought," said Ali. "Mike came to that very small, very informal reading and that night he called me and was like, 'Sai, I hear the music.'"

The music is luscious and pulsates through the three-hour extraveganza.

Thurber said the appeal of Goddess is universal. "The show deals with themes that are so human, although America is so different from Africa. Those themes of tradition and the idea of having parents who want you to do something and you wanting to do something else. Falling in love with the wrong person. These are things that could happen to anybody."

The cast of Goddess includes Larry Powell, Jonathan Burke, Mark Damon Johnson, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Britney Coleman, Karan Kendrick, Forest VanDyke, Shaleah Adkisson, Allison Blackwell and Cedric Cannon. The music direction is by John DiPinto.