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Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

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