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.