If you want to see a performer in full command of her instrument and her powers, take the F train to Second Avenue and walk the few blocks to New York Theater Workshop to savor Somi Kakoma in “Dreaming Zenzile,” her tribute to the South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, born Zenzile Miriam Makeba.
Makeba, a star from the 1960s through her death in 2008, pioneered the form broadly known as world music. Singing in Xhosa, Swahili, Sotho, Zulu and English, Makeba popularized African songwriting among American and European audiences, earning the nickname Mama Africa. Throughout her life, she lent her voice to social justice causes, particularly that of Black South Africans living under apartheid. Onstage, at New York Theater Workshop, in collaboration with the National Black Theater, Kakoma, in a marigold dress, with a voice like a sunrise, plays her through 76 years of her eventful life.
Makeba was a vocal shapeshifter who could triumph in practically any genre — folk, jazz, American songbook, Afropop. Vocally, Kakoma has that chameleonlike quality, too, varying her big, bright voice with husky breaths, vivid ululation and the Xhosa clicks for which Makeba was famous. Her singing seems as effortless as it is varied, as easy as it is virtuosic. “Dreaming Zenzile,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz with music direction by Hervé Samb, is best understood and enjoyed as Kakoma’s gift of love and dignity, across generations, from one artist to another.
But as a work of theater, “Dreaming Zenzile” struggles among the competing forms of recital, dream play, memory play and biography. The bare set, by Riccardo Hernández, suggests a concert stage, illuminated by Yi Zhao’s vibrant lights and backed, less helpfully by Hannah Wasileski’s banal projections of waves, flowers and rainbow abstractions. Is this an auditorium or some astral way station? Is it the afterlife? Lacking the style and thematic force that defines Blain-Cruz’s best work, the show feels less like a narrative than a tone poem, which can make time hang heavy in the first half; it takes an hour just to bring young Miriam to her professional debut.
Amplified by a four-person chorus (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola and Phindi Wilson) and a four-person band, the music feels electric, often joyful, a sharp shock of pleasure that Marjani Forté-Saunders’s supple, elegant choreography enhances. But the interplay between book passages and Makeba’s songs, which are not subtitled, rarely feels essential. Why these songs, in these moments? By contrast, Kakoma’s emotion-heavy, jazz-inflected songs are too on the button. Really, they’re all button. Those who arrive without a working chronology may feel lost.
Though it touches briefly on some central themes — exile, responsibility — and limns, however elliptically, most of the major life events of its subject, “Dreaming Zenzile” withholds what most of us desire from a work of this kind: a greater understanding of how a performer’s life shapes and impacts her art, the relationship between experience and oeuvre. This desire isn’t necessarily fair or sensible. Sometimes that relationship doesn’t exist. Sometimes it is too oblique to parse. But because “Dreaming Zenzile” too often favors symbol and abstraction, the audience is denied this connection.
Only in its closing moments, which occur shortly before Makeba’s death, does the show achieve a kind of cohesion and vigor. Throughout, Makeba has taken up the burden of activism with sturdiness and poise, freeing her voice in the hope that others might be made free. Finally, she announces the cost.
“Do you know what it is to be the first?” she says, choking on the words. “Do you know the weight of that? The loneliness?”
To ask one woman to stand in for an entire continent was always too great a burden. Mama Africa? It was impossible. That Makeba bore it for so long, and with such grace, is a wonder and a gift. At its best, “Dreaming Zenzile” is a thank-you note, written with deep and abiding gratitude.
Through June 26 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.