There exists a genre of theatre that examines the life of a single person deemed great or otherwise revered by a swath of society. Less notable examples include Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show, and King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story. Terrence McNally’s Master Class lives in this genre, with its dualist exploration of the life and work (musical and otherwise) of Maria Callas, as does Lawrence and Lee’s Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The latter carries a message beyond its biographical content—individualism is good?—making the theatrical performance more than just a dramatization of a life story. The performance becomes a charge for the audience.
The argument could be made that examining the lives of people who lived within certain messages or political spheres merely amplifies that message or politics. There’s nothing transcendental about repetition, as Thoreau would no doubt aver. In the case of Dreaming Zenzile, a biographical memory play about Miriam Makeba, not only are the messages of its subject amplified, but they resonate with other messages very present and vital to society today.1 Makeba fought against segregation and racism through her music and her actions—she was as stateless as Marx when South Africa, her home, rejected her application for a new passport—while being a beloved performer in the western world, facile in the languages of jazz and pop music. She used her popularity to raise awareness of the cultural destruction that had happened and continued to happen in South Africa and all over the colonized world. Her story is ripe for dramatization, but what Somi Kakoma does in her portrayal and assembly of Makeba’s life events is honed for the cultural and political battles going on today.
Somi is a product of Africa.2 Her parents emigrated to America from East Africa, one from Rwanda and the other from Uganda. She is also a force in the international jazz scene; when Makeba died in 2008, Somi brought together some of Makeba’s collaborators, colleagues, and friends to memorialize her at the former Village Gate, where she had performed before.3 It was Somi’s first attempt at connecting with Makeba’s spirit. Dreaming Zenzile is the fullest fruit of that connection. Makeba’s spirit seems to possess Somi during its entirety.
Dreaming Zenzile reimagines Makeba’s final concert as a mesh of memories, of traumas and triumphs.4 Its situation—in 2008, just after Barack Obama becomes the first Black President of the United States—points the audience’s attention to the “now” even as the events of “then” play on stage. Within the first ten minutes, the audience is indirectly told to keep aware of the current ongoing struggle against white supremacy, racism, and neocolonialism in America. That injunction is made more direct in the second act, when the audience is directly put on the spot—“Why are you here?!” Miriam demands with the thrust of two fingers on one hand pointing, or maybe it’s Somi herself asking the question—during a monologue delivered in a tight spotlight that deserves every accolade available. Here is where Dreaming Zenzile is most like Master Class, but Somi’s work never feels dry or stale. They are Somi’s own words for Makeba, put through Makeba, and they are words the audience needs to hear. “Why are you here?!” functions similarly to the repeated “Wake up!” that ends Spike Lee’s School Daze. The audience is commanded to reckon with itself.
1. Somi Kakoma, Dreaming Zenzile, performance 15 June 2022 7:00pm, New York Theatre Workshop.
2. While she is credited as Somi Kakoma for Dreaming Zenzile, she typically performs under her first name only.
3. A New York Times article from 1961 announcing her presence (“rolling her remarkably bright, large eyes and clicking like a field of beetles”) at the Village Gate is buried among advertising and the restaurant guide. Arthur Gelb, “Miriam Makeba and Leon Bibb Open Shows,” The New York Times, 5 May 1961, sec. food fashions family furnishings, p. 24.
4. King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story has a similar conceit, though its two acts are two different final concerts—the first is the final broadcast of The Roger Miller Show on television, and the second is Miller’s final live performance before his death. The conceit is handled more clumsily in King of the Road, the mechanism is inartfully on display throughout, and Mary Miller (Roger Miller’s wife when he died and also a writer of the show) couldn’t help but insert herself only towards the show’s end, as if she was a saving grace for Miller. (Cort Cassidy and Mary Miller, King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story, performances 27 April – 14 May 2017, The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, California.) Somi deftly inserts herself throughout Dreaming Zenzile without calling attention to the fact.