Despite too many twists and turns, ‘Lindiwe’ — and Ladysmith Black Mambazo — will win you over

Eric Simonson’s play, which he co-directs with Jonathan Berry, draws here and there from fairy tales, fables and mythology.

SHARE Despite too many twists and turns, ‘Lindiwe’ — and Ladysmith Black Mambazo — will win you over
Nondumiso Tembe (as Lindiwe) and Erik Hellman (as Adam) in a scene from Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “Lindiwe.”

Nondumiso Tembe (as Lindiwe) and Erik Hellman (as Adam) in a scene from Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “Lindiwe.”

Michael Brosilow

Plot details have been sparse in the marketing materials for the new play reuniting Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Eric Simonson with the South African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo for their third theatrical collaboration. “Lindiwe” was described as a love story, set in both Chicago and in Mambazo’s homeland; not much else was offered in the way of detail.

Perhaps Steppenwolf trusted that the story didn’t much matter — not for ticket sales, anyway. Mambazo is enough of a draw. The choral group, introduced to American audiences on Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland,” is now world-music royalty.

‘Lindiwe’

Untitled

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20–$114

Info: steppenwolf.org

Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission


And the group’s two previous Steppenwolf projects, both in the 1990s, are fondly remembered. “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” staged in 1992, transferred to Broadway the next year, earning six Tony Award nominations, including best play and best direction of a play for Simonson.

The 1995 follow-up, “Nomathemba (Hope),” was a modern love story influenced by African folk tales; it was described in newspaper reports at the time as “the biggest box-office hit in Steppenwolf Theatre’s history,” and the production later traveled to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

So to have a reunion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Simonson at Steppenwolf for the first time in nearly 25 years makes “Lindiwe” feel like an event, period. No more need be said.

Except that leaves you rather unprepared for one of the play’s very first images of longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, done up like one of Thanos’ henchmen in a Marvel movie but preening like a Disney villain.

Peyankov’s character, referred to as “The Keeper,” hovers on a walkway raised above the stage, brandishing an evil-wizard staff and declaiming about the pain inflicted upon him by the gorgeous singing of our heroine, Lindiwe (Nondumiso Tembe), below. And right there in the show’s opening moments, the Keeper resolves to quiet Lindiwe by stealing her voice.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is featured in Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “Lindiwe” by ensemble member Eric Simonson.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is featured in Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “Lindiwe” by ensemble member Eric Simonson.

Michael Brosilow

You’d be forgiven for wondering in that moment just what in the name of “The Little Mermaid Live!” we’ve strapped in for. I found myself rifling through the files in my head for everything I’d read about “Lindiwe”: international love story — check; Ladysmith Black Mambazo — check; music bridging Mambazo’s traditional isicathamiya sound and Chicago blues — check. No mention of fairy tales.

But I’d recommend you hold any questions and trust “Lindiwe” to win you over, as it surely will. Simonson’s play, which he co-directs with Jonathan Berry, draws here and there from fairy tales, fables and mythology; there’s ultimately a heavy dash of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in that of Lindiwe and her love, Adam.

Lindiwe addresses us directly to set the action in motion: The story, she tells us, is sort of taking place inside her head. She’s a singer from Durban who tours with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or “the guys,” who appear as themselves (or the versions of themselves in Lindiwe’s mind). In a tour stop in Chicago, the group heads to Kingston Mines to hear some blues music, and Lindiwe falls in love at first sight with Adam (Erik Hellman), the house band’s drummer.

Adam is equally smitten, but staying in touch long-distance is tough, and efforts at cohabiting in both Chicago and South Africa prove even tougher due to visa issues and Lindiwe’s rising star.

We see all of this play out in flashback — actually in several flashbacks, as it’s eventually revealed that both Lindiwe and Adam are trapped in a kind of purgatory with the Keeper. But they also have moral support from two favorite, long-dead relatives: Lindiwe’s Mkhulu (Cedric Young), or grandfather, and Adam’s kooky Aunt Clarisse (Jennifer Engstrom).

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more about the larger mechanics, but there are smaller elements of Simonson’s writing that rankle. I’ve long thought him to have a tin ear for dialogue, and his recent string of Broadway sports dramas (“Lombardi,” “Magic/Bird,” “Bronx Bombers”) apparently hasn’t mitigated his reliance on tropes and platitudes.

Adam and Lindiwe’s respective love for their hometowns, too, can feel awfully fuzzy. When Adam tells Lindiwe that she’s seen Chicago but she hasn’t seen his Chicago, he follows by rattling off the Green Mill, Montrose Beach and the Cubs; he might as well be reading from a TripAdvisor list of popular North Side tourist attractions. (See also: Kingston Mines as iconic blues destination.) Lindiwe’s descriptions of her beloved Durban and Johannesburg are somehow even more vague.

But “Lindiwe” is a clear case of a whole that’s greater than its parts. That’s largely owing to South African star Tembe’s radiant stage presence, along with the inarguably joyful spirit and hushed, penetrating harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And despite the occasional clumsy step, at a macro level, Simonson and Berry get at something vital about the way those we’ve lost never fully leave us — they’re always there in our heads and hearts, ready to hum us another tune.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.

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