Nomvula Gerashe, Themba Kubheka, and Ayanda in the opening number of
Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Drumstruck.
Dodger Stages, New York, NY
June 16, 2005–Open Run
Reviewed by Brenda Dixon Gottschild
Kept alive by word of mouth, Drumstruck is Off-Broadway’s secret treat. Eleven inspired African artists who dance, sing, and drum with equal facility invite audiences to pick up the Djembe drums placed on each seat and join them in this celebration of South African culture.
Dance is such a powerful motor driving this show that it could well be subtitled “Dancestruck.” The real selling point is the ingenious fusion of dance, drumming, and song that allows the audience to experience these arts as a continuum. The performers represent the Pedi, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, and Batswana cultures of South Africa and the Ga culture of Ghana. These details, outlined in program notes, remind us that Africa is a huge continent of many different peoples.
From the opening scene, “Isiqalo,” dance is the measure of the music. Enock Bafana Mahlangu is delicious and de-lovely in directing the “drum corps” audience. With occasional Harpo Marx whistles (fingers stretching the corners of his mouth to shape a shrill sound) he uses his dancing body to direct us. Lifting his left leg signals the audience on his left to play their drums; arms gesture down or up, left or right, for the drumming to intensify or diminish, accordingly. And when Mahlangu dances briskly, alternating weight from one leg to another, our drumming follows suit. This is a simple explanation of what turns out to be a delightful dance.
In traditional African aesthetics, ample-bodied performers are as valued as their lithe counterparts. One well-endowed dancer’s name is Tiny Modiste—a humorous comment on her generous proportions and a typical example of African “signifyin’.” Modiste, Nomvula Gerashe, and “Ayanda”—the three women in the ensemble—dance up a storm and drum competently alongside the men.
Two poignant dances were reenactments. “Khoisan” was led by fleet-footed, birdlike Molebeledi “Sponch” Mogapi. Incorrectly called “Hottentots,” the Khoisan people were exterminated in the 1800s. This beautiful, light, syncopated work, danced in loincloths and cowrie beads, brought them to life again. “Izicathulo” reprises the Zulu gumboot dance of the infamous Gauteng gold mines. Wearing knee-high rubber boots and coveralls, the men tapped, stomped, and slapped heels, toes, ankles, and thighs in this complex forerunner of the African American hambone.
If it is true that Africa is where we all come from, then Drumstruck’s multicultural, intergenerational audience was African once more—at least for 90 minutes. See www.DrumstruckNY.com.