Though the lobby bar at the Apollo Theater is open before the show, you’re probably better off not bringing a drink to your seat for “DJEMBE! The Show.” Your hands will be so busy pounding the drum you’re holding between your knees, it’s hard to imagine what you’d do with your sippy cup of chardonnay.
“DJEMBE!” takes its name from the goblet-shaped percussion instrument with origins in West Africa. But the show is the brainchild of Doug Manuel, a white Englishman now residing in Senegal who describes himself on his website as a “social entrepreneur” and “inspirational speaker.”
‘DJEMBE! The Show’
When: Through June 9
Where: Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $39 – $69
Run time: 1 hour 20 minutes, with no intermission
Manuel’s show, which he developed with director and co-author West Hyler (an alum of Cirque du Soleil and the artistic director of the New York Musical Festival), is less a true theater piece than a presentation, the kind you might encounter at a theme park or on a cruise ship. It carries that slight whiff of a TED Talk you might be picking up from its creator’s resume.
In fact, Manuel actually presented an early version of the piece a few years back at a TEDx conference in Hollywood, and the show’s press materials proudly advertise that “versions of ‘DJEMBE!’ have already been used by companies including Google, McDonald’s, IBM, Nestle, and Procter & Gamble to illustrate the importance of collaboration and community.”
So what’s on stage at the Apollo right now is not, perhaps, theater in the strictest sense. At the very least, you don’t often hear playwrights boasting about their works being “used by” giant corporations. William Shakespeare may have been a shrewd actor-manager, but I have a hard time imagining him selling “All’s Well That Ends Well” as a conflict-resolution webinar.
If you can set aside your cynicism, though — and I’m making every effort to do so myself — “DJEMBE!” does a number of things very right here in what’s billed as the show’s U.S. premiere (following a European tour, and leaving that TEDx Talk aside).
For one, it hired Rashada Dawan. The powerhouse performer, most recently seen leading Firebrand Theatre’s blazing-hot production of “Caroline, or Change” last fall, commands the stage with her stunning voice and electric presence, even when the material she’s given can seem a little beneath her.
What Dawan is leading here can feel like a Wikipedia entry. Manuel’s premise is that the music we know today — everything from gospel to blues to samba to trap — has its origins in West African rhythms, and in the djembe specifically.
The main selling point of the show — the tagline of every ad for “DJEMBE!” — is the audience participation: there’s a drum on every seat! And indeed there is, and we’re encouraged to use them —at appropriate points, and only as instructed. “DJEMBE!” is looking for a very enthusiastic but also very regimented kind of engagement. We’ve given you a drum, yes, but please don’t touch it until we tell you to.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering that marketing, the audience is asked to forget the drums in our laps more often than we’re asked to beat them. Dawan and her co-hosts — Fode Lavia Camara, a djembe master from Guinea, and Ben Hope, an actor-musician from New York — take us through a 90-minute musical journey, but only in two or three sequences we are asked to take up the instruments between our knees.
Those sequences are often medleys, in which Dawan, Camara and Hope encourage the audience to maintain a very simple rhythm on our drums while the rest of the onstage band (led by music director Patrick Donley) shifts genres from, let’s say, ragtime to swing to funk.
Do the beats we’re tapping out in the house really match up to the pop songs Manuel references near the end of the 80-minute show? Does “99 Luftballoons” actually share that much DNA with “Mas Que Nada”?
Hard to say. But I can’t shake the image of the toddler, seated between his parents in the next section over from me, dancing in his seat and beating his drum like there was no tomorrow.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.