×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Song of Jacob Zulu

The good news is that the permeating tremolo of Joseph Shabalala's voice and the sinuous urgency of K. Todd Freeman's performance converge powerfully in "The Song of Jacob Zulu," a story of South Africa at the edge of freedom that brings Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company back to Broadway.

With:
Marty Frankel ... Gerry Becker Judge Neville ... Robert Breuler Jacob Zulu ... K. Todd Freeman Rev. Zulu, etc. ... Zakes Mokae

The good news is that the permeating tremolo of Joseph Shabalala’s voice and the sinuous urgency of K. Todd Freeman’s performance converge powerfully in “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” a story of South Africa at the edge of freedom that brings Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company back to Broadway.

Indeed, there are moments during “Zulu” when musical lyricism and compelling ensemble work are effectively harnessed to an explosive but ultimately tragic tale.

But more typically, playwright Tug Yourgrau and his collaborators have flattened this true story into a bloodless, impressionistic montage that lacks narrative thrust. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to “Sarafina!” and “Jacob Zulu” will suffer in the comparison, making its chances for a lengthy stay on Broadway iffy.

The son of a minister (Zakes Mokae), Jacob Zulu (Freeman) is slowly drawn to membership in the African National Congress. Committed at first to non-violence, he’s radicalized by the brutalization of blacks at the hands of the police and the military.

After studying in Mozambique and Angola, he is instructed to find a political target for a bombing and chooses an office in a mall of the state-run airline. After placing the bomb, Jacob fails in his attempts to telephone a warning to clear the mall and simply walks away. The explosion kills four, including three children, and injures 50 others.

Much of the play is taken up with Jacob’s trial and its inevitable outcome, though only one courtroom scene — in which the victims’ relatives and friends testify in a free-form litany of pain and confusion — cuts to the heart.

But the most powerful scenes occur outside the legal arena, whether between father and son or among the people who take over Jacob’s political education. And in the most memorable scene, the guilt-ridden Jacob is surrounded by shield-wielding ancestors in the play’s major attempt to break out of its realistic bonds.

The main thematic difference between “Sarafina!” and “The Song of Jacob Zulu” is that the former was about the evil of apartheid, while the new work is about those for whom “the good news” of apartheid’s end comes too late.

Yourgrau’s inspiration was to build the play around Jacob Zulu and to use the great South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as a chorus , both commenting upon the story and advancing it.

Thus the play opens with the group marching downstage, led by the incomparable Joseph Shabalala, all dressed in oatmeal-colored linen and lit in a soft yellow light, singing “Smother the fire/open your hearts.” The lyrics are projected on the proscenium, a subtle and welcome help. Aurally, there’s a fascinating symbiosis between the group and Freeman.

But while the choice of Ladysmith-as-chorus was inspired, the execution isn’t. Yourgrau, a South African emigre living in Boston, hasn’t universalized Jacob’s story in the way the songs promise; it’s a static account of one schlemiel’s incompetence and rotten luck.

Eric Simonson’s direction is no help, either; “Zulu” plays slack and full of lulls despite the story and the vibrant music underscoring it.

Kevin Rigdon has done much better work as scenic designer for Steppenwolf. On the production end, only Erin Quigley’s costumes and Robert Christen’s exceptionally variegated lighting rise above the rest.

The Song of Jacob Zulu

(Plymouth Theater, New York; 1,027 seats, $ 50 top)

Production: A Steppenwolf Theater Company, Randall Arney, Stephen Eich, Albert Poland, Susan Liederman, Bette Cerf Hill presentation, in association with Maurice Rosenfield, of the Steppenwolf production of a play with music in two acts by Tug Yourgrau, with music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and lyrics by Yourgrau and Ladysmith; directed by Eric Simonson.

Creative: Sets, Kevin Rigdon; costumes, Erin Quigley; lighting, Robert Christen; sound, Rob Milburn. Opened March 24, 1993, reviewed March 22.

Cast: Marty Frankel ... Gerry Becker Judge Neville ... Robert Breuler Jacob Zulu ... K. Todd Freeman Rev. Zulu, etc. ... Zakes MokaeWith: Pat Bowie, David Connelly, Leelai Demoz, Erika L. Heard, Danny Johnson, Gary DeWitt Marshall, Daniel Oreskes, Tania Richard, Seth Sibanda, Alan Wilder, Nicholas Cross Wodtke, Cedric Young, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Joseph Shabalala, Jubulani Dubazana, Abednego Mazibuko, Albert Mazibuko, Geophrey Mdletshe, Russel Mthembu, Inos Phungula, Jockey Shabalala, Ben Shabalala).

More Legit

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content