'Nomathemba' sings of hope, wariness Theater review: Musical is joyous storytelling, but offers a reminder of what was in apartheid South Africa.

April 23, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Nomathemba" is the Zulu word for "hope" -- something there would seem to be lots of in post-apartheid South Africa. But while the musical by this name is unquestionably uplifting, it also drives home the realization that equality isn't easy to achieve.

Performed by a combined American and South African cast and written by Ntozake Shange, Joseph Shabalala and Eric Simonson, "Nomathemba" grew out of a song Shabalala wrote more than 30 years ago for his famed all-male a cappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which also performs in the show.

Popular in his own country for its optimistic message, the song might seem to have outlived its usefulness now that racial policies in South Africa have changed. But as this co-production by Washington's Kennedy Center and New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company suggests, hope is something you can never have too much of, even in the "new" South Africa.

Mostly, however, "Nomathemba" is a joyous piece of theatrical storytelling that puts a South African spin on two tried-and-true dramatic themes: 1) Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again, and 2) in the words of "The Wizard of Oz's" Dorothy, "There's no place like home."

The simple story -- narrated by Shabalala and his vocal group, whose music underscores most of the action -- concerns a young woman named Nomathemba who leaves her fiance, Bongani, and their small village of Ladysmith, eager to participate in her country's future. "I am not your world or my world," Nomathemba tells Bongani. "We are here to create a world."

Bongani -- played by Ntare Mwine as proud and fun-loving -- doesn't understand this. All he knows is that he loves this high-spirited, independent woman, as she is portrayed by exuberant Cee-Cee Harshaw.

So Bongani sets off to find her, and we follow their parallel adventures. Bongani gains maturity through such hard-luck experiences as being robbed and ending up penniless and alone. And, after confronting the terrors of the big city -- men eager to sell her into prostitution and others who draw knives because she wants the same factory job they do -- Nomathemba returns home having learned that her country's future isn't what's in the cities, it's what's in your heart.

Along the way, there are reminders of the scars of apartheid. The most poignant is a woman Bongani meets named Lila -- hauntingly played by Erika L. Heard -- driven mad by memories of the massacre of her family.

All of the lovers' adventures are woven together by Ladysmith Black Mambazo's lilting music -- some of which is sung in Zulu and translated in super titles -- as well as by three onstage instrumentalists and the company's percussive dancing. But the music's joyfulness never totally overshadows South Africa's past, and continuing, difficulties. After Nomathemba and Bongani's buoyant wedding, Shabalala -- who acts as a combination of narrator, guardian angel and conscience of the piece -- shares the empty stage with a figure huddled beneath a blanket.

It is an image seen twice earlier -- first, when we meet the mourning character of Lila and later when lonely Nomathemba is on her way home. As the musical's denouement, it serves as a quiet reminder that while there is much to celebrate in South Africa, there is also a great deal yet to be done.

'Nomathemba'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 19

Tickets: $38-$53

Call: (800) 444-1324

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