Steppenwolf's 'Lindiwe' soars musically, but narrative needs work

  • The magnetic Nondumiso Tembe plays the titular role in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of "Lindiwe," featuring songs by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

    The magnetic Nondumiso Tembe plays the titular role in Steppenwolf Theatre's world premiere of "Lindiwe," featuring songs by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 11/21/2019 12:58 PM

"Lindiwe" -- ★ ★ ★

"I love to sing."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those are among the first thoughts expressed by the titular character in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Lindiwe," a well-intentioned play-with-music about an African singer and a Chicago drummer whose passion for their art is exceeded only by their passion for each other.

"Lindiwe" marks the third collaboration between Steppenwolf and the Grammy Award-winning South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose members earned international acclaim following their work with Paul Simon on 1986's "Graceland." The first collaboration, 1992's "The Song of Jacob Zulu," directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, premiered at Steppenwolf, then transferred to Broadway where it earned six Tony Award nominations. In 1995, Simonson and Mambazo reunited for the second work, "Nomathemba (Hope)," which played at The Kennedy Center after its Steppenwolf premiere.

Nondumiso Tembe, left, and Erik Hellman play musicians from opposite sides of the world who fall in love in Chicago in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Lindiwe."
Nondumiso Tembe, left, and Erik Hellman play musicians from opposite sides of the world who fall in love in Chicago in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of "Lindiwe." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

In the third work, written by Simonson, who co-directed with Jonathan Berry, the show incorporates folk tales and myths (Orpheus and Eurydice) to tell a 21st-century transcultural love story. But it's Mambazo's music that makes "Lindiwe" special.

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Performed in the group's distinctive, hushed style, the melodies are so lilting, so mellifluous and so joyful they about took my breath away. In the captivating Nondumiso Tembe, whose boundless charm nearly equals her lustrous voice, the production has a leading lady who is simply luminous as the titular Lindiwe. When Tembe and Mambazo sing -- accompanied by guitarist Buddy Fambro, drummer Erik Hellman and bassist Frank Russell -- "Lindiwe" soars. During the nonmusical moments, however, the show stumbles. Ultimately, "Lindiwe" fails to live up to its promise owing to a problematic narrative that is both muddled and repetitive.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Grammy Award-winning South African vocal group, composed the songs for Steppenwolf Theatre's "Lindiwe," in which the group co-stars.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Grammy Award-winning South African vocal group, composed the songs for Steppenwolf Theatre's "Lindiwe," in which the group co-stars. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Tembe plays Lindiwe, the sole female in the traditionally all-male Mambazo, whose members play themselves and serve as a de facto Greek chorus. While on tour with "the guys" as she calls them, Lindiwe meets and falls in love with Adam (Hellman), a drummer at Kingston Mines, the famed blues joint on Chicago's North Side, where Lindiwe joins the house band for a rousing rendition of the jump blues tune "Caldonia." Soon after, Immigration and Customs Enforcement comes calling and Lindiwe is deported to South Africa. Adam joins her, but their relationship suffers after her career takes off while his stalls.

Revealing more would spoil the play, which incorporates the fantastical in the guise of The Keeper (Yasen Peyankov), an embittered demigod determined to silence Lindiwe. Rounding out the cast is Jennifer Engstrom and Cedric Young who play several roles, including Adam's free-spirited aunt and Lindiwe's beloved grandfather, both of which are underwritten.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Steppenwolf Theatre's "Lindiwe," a love story with music by writer/director Eric Simonson and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, features renowned Chicago spots such as the Kingston Mines.
Steppenwolf Theatre's "Lindiwe," a love story with music by writer/director Eric Simonson and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, features renowned Chicago spots such as the Kingston Mines. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Some revising of the story is in order, but "Lindiwe" has a foundation upon which to build because of its quietly intoxicating score and its leading lady's incandescent performance. Most important though, is its message, which Mambazo has long championed, about the power of music to uplift, comfort and unite.

Now that's something worth singing about.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 5. Also 2 p.m. Dec. 4, 11 and 18. No 7:30 p.m. show Dec. 8, 15, 22 or 29. No shows Dec. 24-25 or Jan. 1

Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $20-$109

Parking: $15 in the lot; limited street parking

Rating: For teens and older; mature themes and adult language

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