Just when you thought “Stomp” had cornered the market on percussion-as-performance, in marches “Drumstruck.” Originally developed in South Africa, this “drum-theater experience” blends traditional African instruments, song and dance into an infectious musical event. And it’s not just the flawless ensemble that gets in on the fun: Since there’s a drum at every seat, the audience becomes its own rhythm section.
The show succeeds as feel-good entertainment. Especially strong are perfs from Enoch Bafana Mahlangu, with energy to burn as he conducts audience drummers, and Ayanda, whose singing alone is worth the ticket price.
Even if it dug no deeper, “Drumstruck” could wow the crowd. However, just beneath the comic bits and sing-alongs lies a Message. “The drum,” we’re told, “brings our communities together. Tonight our music has brought us together.” This might sound simplistic, but creator Warren Lieberman, who heads producing org Drum Cafe, and director David Warren offer more than platitudes.
Unity is envisioned without turning cultural traditions into theme-park attractions. The music and dance obviously have meaning, but it’s rarely explained, suggesting the performers are here less for our amusement than to invite us into rituals that lose no significance on a Gotham stage.
Adding to the immediacy is the fact that many scenes are performed in African languages. We’re told, for example, that the drums and songs in one scene — “Khoisan” — tell a folk legend of “the Bushmen, the original and oldest inhabitants of Africa.” The details, however, are not translated, which puts a refreshing demand on the aud to find its own way through the story.
When English does take over, it becomes an artistic statement, suggesting that the walls of tradition are not always rigid. Take a scene called “Xigubu” (Drum Lesson), in which a supposedly random audience member is brought onstage. Initially, the joke is that an awkward American could never master the drums. But when he delivers some scripted surprises, the joke is on those who would limit ownership of “Drumstruck’s” music. Traditions make room for new forms: it’s a smart way to let auds laugh at themselves and then encourage them to get drumming.
The balance between the traditional and the modern also informs the design. Neil Patel’s set may be the back wall of a tree-lined village house, but the costumes mix traditional garb with blue jeans. (Fittingly, show reps say the clothes were “put together in South Africa as the result of many contributions.”)
Of course, “Drumstruck” may fall short of creating world peace. You need rose-colored glasses to read program notes insisting the music will “infuse its rhythms into the heads, hearts and souls of American audiences.” Still, kudos are due to a group of artists who mix sheer entertainment with sensitivity and smarts.