Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Ever since they burst onto the US music scene on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been known for its trademark harmonies and gorgeous, understated musicality. In Chicago, the group has also become something of a staple at Steppenwolf Theatre, whose new play Lindiwe is its third collaboration with the South African a capella masters. (Their music is actually a South African style called isicathamiya, pronounced Is-Cot-A-ME-Ya, developed in that country’s mines for entertainment much like the storytellers of ancient Greece.) Lindiwe, with a book by Eric Simonson, who co-directs with Jonathan Berry, may not be as successful as the first collaboration, The Song of Jacob Zulu, but it is still a completely enjoyable piece. Despite a story that seems cobbled together from various sources (including the Greek myth of Orpheus, currently featured in the Tony Award-winning Hadestown) to create a platform for its music, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and powerhouse performer Nondumiso Tembe are so wonderful that you honestly don’t care if the plot works or not.
About the plot: Tembe plays the eponymous Lindiwe, a South African singer who, in the play’s universe, tours the world performing with her Ladysmith Black Mambazo friends. In a stop in Chicago, she has two moments of instant love: with the blues, which she hears at the iconic Kingston Mines, and with Adam (Erik Hellman), a musician she meets there. They fall in love and she moves in with him as he shows her the city over the next four months. (For some reason, Ladysmith Black Mambazo remains in Chicago while this goes on despite the tour they are supposed to be on; timelines are not really clear in this play.) The two lovers do have a nice spark together, which helps to make their threadbare relationship believable.
After Lindiwe is swept up in an ICE raid—one of the play’s homages to current American politics—and deported, Adam comes to visit her in her home in Durban, South Africa, where he becomes frustrated that he can’t work due to Visa issues. Just as Lindiwe is about to break through as a singer—apparently the fact that she has toured the world with Ladysmith Black Mambazo doesn’t count?—the two of them are involved in a terrible car accident, sending the whole play into a strange limbo-like place presided over by an entity known only as The Keeper (Yasen Peyankov, honestly rather stiff in this role) who detests Lindiwe’s singing—it reminds him of a lost love, though why a supernatural entity who controls life and death would even have a lost love is unclear. While they review their lives at the Keeper’s request, the couple reunite with their own lost loved ones: Adam’s Aunt Clarisse, played by Jennifer Engstrom, and Lindiwe’s grandfather Mkhulu, played by Cedric Young, who then take on various roles in a retelling that just introduces more complications. (Both of these actors, though, have fun with their multiple parts.)
Whatever. It isn’t the story here that matters, really; it’s the music. If you like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, you’ll be thrilled to get to see them perform live, both onstage and in the audience. Simonson is rather trapped by a set that is essentially a bare stage with a partially collapsed proscenium, so moving the large singing group around does end up getting somewhat visually repetitive. Still, aided by sound design created by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, they sound fantastic. So does Tembe, whether she is blending her voice with theirs, belting the blues (yes, “Sweet Home Chicago” makes an appearance), or singing South African music on her own. She is a dynamic force here and an absolute joy to watch and listen to. And the play is structured as a way to highlight both her and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s talents, so you’ll get plenty of opportunity to do that. It may not be the best play ever to grace Steppenwolf’s stages, but thanks to the music it is wonderfully entertaining.
Lindiwe is now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, until Jan 5. The show runs two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.