Black South African musical brightens Broadway. Collage of music, narration, and drama celebrates `child-power' in a school under siege
New York — Sarafina! Musical written, conceived, and directed by Mbongeni Ngema with music by Mr. Ngema and Hugh Masekela. ``Sarafina!'' more than honors its exclamation point. From rhythmically driving overture to tumultuous finale, the new black South African musical at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater throbs with an energy that reinforces the urgency of its message. The message, of course, is freedom. The method is a collage of song, dance, narration, and dramatic incident performed by a cast of mostly school-age youngsters.
The production of this work by Mbongeni Ngema (coauthor of ``Woza Albert!'' and author of ``Asinimali!'') and composer Hugh Masekela originated under the aegis of the Committed Artists Company at the Market Theater in Johannesburg. A Playbill note by Duma Ndlovu explains the ``Sarafina!'' background:
``In April of 1976, children in seven junior high schools in Soweto decided to boycott classes in protest [against the establishment of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in all South African schools].... On the morning of June 16, 1976, more than 200,000 students gathered at the Morris Isaacson High School and marched toward the outskirts of Soweto. This marked one of the most significant days in the history of the black political struggle in South Africa, and proved to be a catalyst of profound importance. By the end of the year, the police and soldiers killed many hundreds of school children. The first official victim was 11-year-old Hector Peterson and, since then, the educational system has never been the same.''
Author-director Ngema has chosen Morris Isaacson as the setting for ``Sarafina!'' After a tumultuous assembly, the pupils, clad in black school uniforms topped by black bowlers, pass an intimidating identity check. Once in their places, the children are brought more or less to order by Mistress It's a Pity (galvanic Baby Cele). Their studies of English poetry (Wordsworth), algebra, and black history are punctuated with song and dance. A recital of oil-producing countries is brusquely interrupted by armed soldiers as smoke fills the stage and the theater.
Spontaneously performed and precisely choreographed, the musical numbers provide a running commentary on the children's experiences - the acts of protest, troops and police in the classroom, imprisonment and torture, and the funerals of victims (a particularly moving mimed passage). Inspired by Sarafina (herself detained briefly and tortured), the children decide to create a play to welcome imprisoned activist Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, on the occasion of Mandela's hoped-for release.
Though the text is sometimes difficult to follow, Ngema, Masekela, and their young performers can be equally eloquent, whether the theme is brotherly love or militant protest. In the soaring ``Kilimanjaro,'' the children sing, ``The oceans and the rivers and the music/ Will never run dry/ Raise your voices and keep on singing to the drums/ The drums of Africa.''
With these and similar sentiments, the numerous cast raises the roof of the Newhouse in what Mr. Ngema described as a musical ``to celebrate Mbaqanga music [black South African popular music] and the power of the children.'' The celebration receives a stirring accompaniment from a khaki-clad combo led by gyrating conductor-choreographer Ndaba Mhlongo. Leleti Khumalo's serenely engaging Sarafina is surrounded by an assortment of characters whose principals bear such colorful names as Colgate, Teaspoon, Crocodile, and Silence.
Sarah Roberts's setting features a chain-link-fence enclosure for the orchestra, surrounded by scaffolding and surmounted by a catwalk; her costumes begin with the sober school uniforms and conclude with native South African dress in a riot of colors and textures. Mannie Manim lighted ``Sarafina!,'' which is scheduled to run through Nov. 29.