NEW YORK — THE SONG OF JACOB ZULU Drama by Tug Yourgrau. At the Plymouth Theatre.
THERE is a chilling timeliness to the Broadway opening of the new play "The Song of Jacob Zulu," an import of an acclaimed production from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, that the producers could hardly have anticipated. The recent bombing at the World Trade Center has an eerie parallel to this story of a South African youth on trial for a terrorist bombing.
Tug Yourgrau, a South African-born playwright, was commissioned by Steppenwolf to write the play. Based on a true story, it is less about the evils of apartheid, a subject that has been explored endlessly, than it is about the evil this repressive system fosters. Jacob Zulu, the young terrorist, is a haunting figure who engages our sympathies even as we condemn his acts. The play presents a moral complexity that is all too rare in entertainment.
What transforms the work from being merely a good play into a gripping theatrical experience is the brilliant stroke of using the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as a sort of Greek chorus that frames and comments on the action. This group, which came into Western prominence as a result of Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and tour, suffuses the evening with a spiritual force and a majestic musical power.
Playwright Yourgrau and director Eric Simonson have created a highly charged, vividly theatrical production, which uses abstract shifts in time and space to tell its story. Unrealistic in style, it delineates the reasons for Jacob Zulu's evil deed. Although the play is properly a condemnation of South Africa's apartheid, it does not attempt to excuse Jacob's actions, but to understand them. Such understanding is often in short supply in societies beset by the desire for vengeance. Particularly powerful i s the stylized dream sequence near the end of the play in which Jacob confronts his ancestors and confesses the truth about his deed.
As Jacob, K. Todd Freeman gives a haunting performance. This young actor inhabits his character completely; there is a controlled hysteria in his voice and mannerisms that powerfully conveys the violence and hatred simmering beneath the surface. It is one of the best Broadway performances of the season. He is ably supported by a large cast, many of them playing multiple roles and recreating their performances from the original Chicago production. Particularly impressive are: Gerry Becker, as Jacob's lawy er; Pat Bowie, as Jacob's mother; Robert Breuler, as the judge; and Zakes Mokae in several roles. Kevin Rigdon's abstract scenic design and Robert Christen's lighting are especially noteworthy, conveying a sense of Africa through simple and economic means.
"The Song of Jacob Zulu" is a rarity on Broadway today: a play of charged emotions and provocative ideas.