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Nomathemba is a delightful display of African hope

By Bence Olveczky
Staff Reporter

Nomathemba

Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, through May 10

Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. (excluding May 3). Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and on Wednesday April 29

Tickets $20-$60

A friend of mine recently went to South Africa for a relaxing vacation - bad idea. On his first day in Johannesburg he was robbed three times, escaping from the ordeal with nothing but his boxer shorts.

With 40 percent unemployment and soaring crime rates, the legacy of apartheid and the social injustice it fostered is jeopardizing the dream of a new and prosperous South Africa. It is the strange mixture of hope and despair in post-apartheid South Africa that provides the social context for Nomathemba, an enchanting musical about two young lovers.

Nomathemba, Zulu for hope, playing at the Shubert Theatre until May 10, blends the talents of the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. The result of their collaboration is as original and professional as it is charming and beguiling.

The musically driven plot is both simple and symbolic. Nomathemba (Erica Lavonn) is a spirited and naive farm girl who leaves her slacker fiancee Bogani (Nathan Hinton) behind to explore the opportunities of the new South Africa. "Like my country, I'm adjusting my perimeters," she sings. "So many people, so many buildings, so much to learn."

Trading the security and safety of her village life for the promise of the bustling big city, she soon realizes that her hopes of finding happiness and fulfillment are compromised by a fragmented society where cynicism and crime are the main means of survival.

Meanwhile back in the village, the lonely Bogani is getting increasingly love sick for Nomathemba, and after a fruitless letter writing campaign, he goes after her into the urban jungle. Unable to find her, Bogani returns to the village, disillusioned by what he has experienced. On his way back he sees a girl weeping under a tree. It is Nomathemba. The grand finale of the musical is an invigorating wedding ceremony for the two young lovers performed in true African spirit.

This heartfelt production evolves as a series of vivid images, each concerning a different aspects of South-African reality. The sleepy but trustworthy village community, the crowded African bus, the sleazy brothel, and the depressing township hostel are all stations in Nomathemba's odyssey through modern South Africa. The scenes are beautifully stringed together by a musical narrative performed on stage by the vocal group that made Paul Simon's "Graceland" such a success, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The story that grew out of the group's three minute song, "Nomathemba," is inspired by the hopes and experiences of the group's leader, Joseph Shabalala. Shabalala was himself struggling in the townships of Durban when he recruited members of his family for the vocal group. Their talents were soon discovered and the group gained a wide following both at home and abroad. But South African reality caught up with them in 1991, when Joseph's brother and founding member of the group was gunned down by an off-duty security guard. When asked what they would do after the slaying, Shabalala simple answer was "We will sing." This uncompromising dedication to build a future despite hardship and setback is strongly felt in the inspiring Nomathemba.

The production, first staged by Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1995, is an eclectic mix of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's subdued singing, the cast's forceful African dancing, and pure drama as enacted by the accomplished African actors. The visual framework for the story is provided by Loy Arcenas' expressive stage design. Subtle changes in lighting transforms the visual landscape from a woodcut-like depiction of the African countryside to a haunting and depressing urban ghetto.

Thanks to Eric Simonson's excellent directing, the different elements and styles are blended in an effortless and smooth mix that is a worthy vehicle for Joseph Shabalala's noble wishes for a new and hopeful South Africa.