The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton is presenting the world premiere musical Dreaming Zenzile, based on the life of legendary South African singer Zenzile Miriam Makeba. Running now until February 13, 2022, Dreaming Zenzile is a unique musical and electrifying portrait of the revolutionary artist nicknamed “Mama Africa,” who managed to marry her art with her activism. Makeba was banned from her own country for more than 30 years under apartheid.
Dreaming Zenzile is written and performed by Grammy-nominated international music sensation Somi Kakoma. The show features a live jazz band playing original music and reinterpretations of Makeba’s remarkable catalog.
The musical follows Makeba’s final performance—the singer suffered a fatal heart attack, at age 76, collapsing on stage at a concert in Italy in 2008. She delivers the performance of her life, raising the conscience and consciousness of a people. A chorus of four ancestors, who reveal their relation to Makeba, call her home, transporting the singer through the music and fractured memories of her past on a spiritual journey of reconciliation. Her destiny has been fulfilled, and there is freedom in death, they impart to her.
Through flashbacks the musical touches on Makeba’s success on the New York jazz scene, her friendship with Harry Belafonte, her marriage to prominent civil rights leader and Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, her appearance in the political documentary Come Back, Africa, and her testimony against the South African government to the United Nations.
Dreaming Zenzile is directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, who currently is the resident director of Lincoln Center Theater. Her critical claim includes directing the works of Black female Pulitzer Prize recipients Jackie Sibblies Drury, Lynn Nottage, and Suzan-Lori Parks. She was recently named a 2018 United States Artists Fellow and a 2020 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist.
Blain-Cruz acknowledges that before this show, while she had heard of Makeba, she didn’t know the extent to which the singer had such a presence in American culture. So, she took a real deep dive into the Makeba’s incredible journey.
While there is a lot of music in the show, it is not structured in the way one normally thinks of musicals. “It moves more fluidly and more poetically,” Blain-Cruz told Go Magazine in an interview.
Blain Cruz Lileana, director of Dreaming of Zenzile at McCarter Theatre
Kakoma stars as Makeba and the Sangoma Chorus features Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phindi Wilson, and Phumzile Sojola. Hervé Samb plays guitar and serves as musical director. The jazz ensemble also includes Toru Dodo, pianist; Pathe Jassi, bass; and Sheldon Thwaites, percussion.
The stage musical comes to life seven years after Kakoma started working on the project, and more than a year into the pandemic. Its premiere at The Repertory Theater of St. Louis was halted days before its original opening night in March 2020.
Determined to bring Makeba’s inspirational story to the stage, seven celebrated producing organizations joined forces to re-activate the show. McCarter noted this “rolling world premiere” brings together Octopus Theatricals (known for Hadestown on Broadway,) Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, McCarter, New York Theatre Workshop, Arts Emerson, and National Black Theatre. Dreaming Zenzile is Kakoma’s first play.
“Zenzile is Miriam Makeba's first name and in Xhosa it means 'you have done it to yourself.' This piece is a meditation on the agency she had both in her living and in her dying,” Kakoma said in a released statement. “My hope is that the work might serve as a reminder for all of us to lean into what we love and then hold on to the agency that that thing affords us.
“Real change, real revolution begins with self. Makeba's life and music suggest she knew that and that's why I can still put on an album of hers and be deeply inspired. The voice lives! The question is: how will/does yours live?”
Makeba is known for becoming the first African artist to globally popularize African music, according to U.S. national archives. Her music had a cross-racial appeal in the U.S., but even more so among Black Americans who related their own experiences of racial segregation to Makeba's struggle against apartheid.
“Makeba's lifelong commitment to justice is a lasting example of how we can choose grace and forward motion despite great duress and struggle,” Kakoma added. “Throughout this pandemic and in the midst of a national discourse of institutional racism, her story reminds us to stay the course and remain hopeful. If this piece can inspire hope in the hearts of the audience when they need it most, then the risks we've taken to share it will be worthwhile.”
An acclaimed vocalist and songwriter, Kakoma was born in Illinois to immigrants from Uganda and Rwanda. The Huffington Post once dubbed her “the new Nina Simone,” while NPR describes her as “an ambitious artist and superb jazz singer who creates an elegant amalgam of her bi-continental experiences.”
Mentored by the late Hugh Masekela, Kakoma is highly regarded as both an artist and activist. She is a Soros Equality Fellow, USA Doris Duke Fellow, a TED Senior Fellow, and a Sundance Theatre Fellow. Her latest album release, Holy Room - Live at Alte Oper with Frankfurt Radio Big Band, earned her a 2021 GRAMMY nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. With that nomination, Kakoma became the first African woman ever nominated in any of the GRAMMY jazz categories. The album also won her a second NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album.
Kakoma’s forthcoming album titled ZENZILE: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba will be released on March 4, 2022, which would have been Makeba’s 90th birthday.
Dreaming Zenzile, which has a running time of two hours, premiers January 20 thru February 13, 2022. To purchase tickets, go to mccarter.org/dreamingzenzile. Proof of vaccination (with photo ID) and masks are required for all performances. To view McCarter’s COVID policies, click here.