BWW Review: LINDIWE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf's world premiere production of LINDIWE, a collaboration between ensemble member Eric Simonson and acclaimed South African music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, finds the most success in its musical moments. The production, co-directed by Simonson and Jonathan Berry, features new music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to tell the love story of the titular Lindiwe and her boyfriend Adam. It helps that the narrative focuses on Lindiwe's experience as a singer touring with Ladysmith Black Mambazo-and, indeed, the group literally accompanies her at several moments throughout the production. Lindiwe explains that she never goes anywhere without her "guys," as she affectionately refers to them. Thus, Ladysmith Black Mambazo functions as a kind of Greek chorus underscoring the romantic storyline at the play's center. The conceit also allows for the play to utilize the group's original music.
After experiencing LINDIWE, however, I wish that the production incorporated yet more original music and less spoken dialogue. LINDIWE's storyline, while sweet, is not the most complex. After coming into contact with an ethereal Keeper, Lindiwe and Adam are forced to relive the moments of their tumultuous, cross-cultural relationship as they toggle between Chicago and South Africa. It's a clever concept that allows the play to incorporate both Ladysmith Black Mambazo's music and Chicago blues, as well as interweave some points about the challenges of immigration and cultural understanding.
The performances in LINDIWE are commanding and charming. As Lindiwe, Nondumiso Tembe has a magnetic stage presence. She easily draws audiences into Lindiwe's story and has a natural, conversational delivery for her many moments that break the fourth wall. It's not an exaggeration to say that Tembe glows onstage. She also has a powerhouse singing voice that nicely lends itself to a variety of music genres. I could have listened to her sing for the show's entire run-time alone. Though his character calls for a more reserved performance, Erik Hellman proves a good match for Tembe as Adam. Together, the two actors convey a genuine affection for one another that makes their relationship believable. Cedric Young and Jennifer Engstrom are deliciously animated as Lindiwe's grandfather Mkhulu and Adam's eccentric Aunt Clarisse respectively, each nailing their character's quirks and larger-than-life personalities. And though the role of the Keeper seems to occupy quite a different universe from the other characters, Yasen Peyankov's droll delivery makes the part work.
Ultimately, the most compelling reason to see LINDIWE is for the glorious music that Tembe and Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform (they're joined at certain points by bassist Frank Russell and guitarist Buddy Fambro). As Lindiwe sings in the show, "I sing, therefore I live." And indeed, it is Ladysmith Black Mambazo's unique and powerful music that gives LINDIWE its life and its heart.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Review by Rachel Weinberg