At the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. (Downstairs)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – At the beginning of “Lindiwe” at the Steppenwolf Theatre the prospects appeared to be promising. The title is the name of a black South African singer with a terrific belting bluesy voice. Giving her support is the internationally famous and beloved male a capella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With this much talent in place, what could go wrong?
Unfortunately a great deal goes wrong, thanks (or no thanks) to a convoluted story that is difficult to follow and meanders between realistic love story and fantasy, stumbling down one twisting path after another. Periodically the show is saved by Nondumiso Tembe’s white hot singing as Lindiwe. But the production makes insufficient use of the nine singer-dancers who make up Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It’s this group that most of the spectators surely have come to hear, prepared to luxuriate in the group’s wonderful synchronized vocalizing and body movement and their warm upbeat musical messages of optimism and hope.
Eric Simonson’s book is so perplexing that we have to fall back on conjecture in attempting to get at what the author is trying to convey. The core story goes something like this. Lindiwe and American blues drummer Adam (Erik Hellman) meet while Lindiwe is singing at the real life Kingston Mines club in Chicago. They fall in love but they are continuously hassled by a devil-like character only called, for some reason, the Keeper (Yasen Peyankov). The character wears a long robe and brandishes a metal staff and has the power to zap characters. His identity is never explained. The Keeper stalks the couple, but especially Lindiwe, throughout the show, his reason revealed near the end of the evening, and not worth waiting for. But Peyankov seems to be having a fine time menacing the two young lovers for the character’s own nefarious and improbable reasons.
The production runs a bit over two hours and I don’t think Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on stage for more than a cumulative 30 minutes, while the puzzling Keeper seemed everywhere. Go figure.
There are plot elements in the show that reflect back to the Orpheus and Eurydice story in classic mythology. On a contemporary note, Lindiwe is ensnarled in American immigration laws, spending time a jail because she sang at Kingston Mines without a work visa as a foreigner. Along the way Lindiwe gets homesick returns to South Africa . Adam moves to the country to be with his sweetheart, and gets homesick for the USA. There is a serious offstage traffic accident involving the lovers that is a pivot point for the plot and keeps reappearing in fantasy flashback interjections. By the end of the too long second act, explanations are offered that try to resolve the narrative’s murky complications but for me it was too late.
Finally, at the conclusion, Lindiwe and Ladysmith Black Mambazo join in a shouting delivery of Robert Johnson’s anthem to the Windy City, “Sweet Home Chicago.” But that joyous number only reminds the audience of what they were missing in much of the previous two hours.
Tempe, Hellman, and Peyankov carry all the heavy lifting in the storytelling, with assistance from Cedric Young and Jennifer Engstrom each playing multiple small supporting roles that were largely confusing or unnecessary. But there is nothing but praise for the musical accompaniment from Buddy Fambro on guitar and Frank Russell on electric bass. Given the opportunity, these two musicians really rock. Hellman gets in a few good licks as the band’s drummer.
Collette Pollard designed the single set that looked like the shabby backstage of a theater. A few pieces of furniture were added and removed during the performance to indicate a hospital room or an exterior or the inside of a blues club, with the Keeper prowling and threatening from balcony level. Marcus Doshi designed the lighting, most prominently the blinding flashes of light that mark the Keeper’s displeasure with Lindiwe or Adam. Karin Kopischke designed the costumes, notably the full length gown that made the Keeper look like a malevolent Wizard of Oz.
Notwithstanding all the above negativity, there are still reasons to attend “Lindiwe.” Nondumiso Tembe is a tremendous talent, wowing the audience with her passionate, expressive, jubilant voice and impressive acting chops. And Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a joy to the eye and the ear, making the group’s diminished stage time all the more perplexing. There likely are some spectators who enjoyed the tribulations of the young lovers and were willing to give the confounding plot a pass. That’s their prerogative. I savored the pleasures of the music while pondering what might have been with a coherent story.
“Lindiwe” gets a rating ofstars.
Lindiwe” runs through January 5 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $114. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. November 2019
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