Lindiwe review- Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in another winning collaboration

Nondumiso Tembe and the cast of "Lindiwe", including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's world premiere
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 Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Lindiwewritten and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson- Jonathan Berry co-directs- is currently in production at the Downstairs Theater at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through January 5, 2020. The sprawling musical comedy/drama features original music performed by legendary South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM).

 This infectiously joyous piece is a slightly wacky tale melding magical realism, a clear-eyed cultural commentary on the sinister nuances of apartheid, a mixed-race love story threatened by death and conducted in the thrall of immigration paranoia, a musicology lesson and a disquisition on the importance of family. Given this much flavoring, a wise audience member will let herself go, groove to the song and dance, and not worry overmuch about the play’s deliberate non-linear storytelling mode.

The mostly second generation all male performers in the multi award winning LBM swamp the stage with the deep, rich four-part harmonies that have earned them fame around the globe. Singing in the African indigenous mode of isicathamiya, the melodies twin, blend, and echo each other. The LBM members also vocalize, chant, strut, mime and dance in tight tandem, boogie up and down the aisles, and participate as audience encouraging actors. 

The centerpiece of this show is Lindiwe herself, played by Nondumiso Tembe, an extraordinary entertainer and superior singer whose voice works with the tenor and bass call-and-response of LBM to drench the production with spiritually uplifting sound. In the story within a story of the play, Lindiwe represents the sole female in the male musicianship. Yasen Peyankov as the coyly ominous and hilarious Keeper seeks to silence her. Her lover, Erik Hellman as Adam (the first man?) struggles to be worthy of her; he’s a drummer, if not a rhythmist. 

All of the cast members contribute to demonstrate that we can conquer prejudice and fear with the power of music to heal the evils of the world. Kudos to Jennifer Engstrom as universal long-lost family member Clarisse (and others) and Cedric Young as all-around helpful Mkhulu (and others). The traditional and extended Zulu sounds meet and mix, and support the spirited emotions being played out by the “real” and “invented” characters.

Nondumiso Tembe and musicians in Steppenwolf’s world premiere of “Lindiwe”

By adding a Chicago blues group and their music to the mix in the persons of the rockin’ Frank Russell, bass, and Buddy Fambro, guitar, we are surrounded by aural proof that isicathamiya and iconic Windy City/ Kingston Mines raw rhythm and blues have a common tonality and the same colorful roots. In the context of the cozy atmosphere Downstairs at Steppenwolf, the undiluted radiant happiness of the musicians was transmitted to the audience, changing the vibe from the usual onstage/offstage gestalt of any other play to that of a dynamic concert experience.  

Lindiwe is not the first collaboration between Steppenwolf and LBM. They partnered in 1992 for The Song of Jacob Zulu, also directed by Eric Simonson. That show moved to Broadway and garnered six Tony nominations. Four years later, In 1996, Simonson, Steppenwolf and LBM joined together to produce Nomathemba, later moving to The Kennedy Center. In 2000, Simonson received an Oscar nomination for his documentary On Tiptoe: The Music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, focusing on LBM’s global impact as de facto South African ambassadors.

 Just as LBM has devoted much of their work toward peace and cultural awareness, Lindiwe has these values as its core message. When we stand up for ourselves, we name the world as we see it.

Thanks to Lindiwe’s production team including scenic designer Collette Pollard; costume designer Karin Kopischke; (Lindiwe’s clothes, in particular, were fanciful and fabulous); lighting designer Marcus Doshi; sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; and company voice and text coach Gigi Buffington.

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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