Chicago and Durban, South Africa, have been Sister Cities since 1997, and spiritual siblings for far longer, as explored in the joyful world premiere of Lindiwe, written by Eric Simonson, directed by Simonson and Jonathan Berry, with music written and performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, perhaps best known for their song “Homeless.”
Lindiwe is the third collaboration for Simonson, Steppenwolf Theatre and South Africa’s living legacy ensemble, a partnership that previously produced 1992’s The Song of Jacob Zulu and 1996’s Nomathemba. Simonson also received an Oscar nomination for his 2000 documentary On Tiptoe: The Music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
This fresh outing imagines the personal and cultural repercussions of a long-distance relationship between South African singer and dancer Lindiwe (vibrant Nondumiso Tembe, who also choreographed some of the exuberant movement) and Chicago drummer Adam (enthusiastic Erik Hellman). They meet at Kingston Mines, just up the Windy City’s Blues Alley on Halsted Street, then spend time in each other’s respective home towns.
The connective tissue throughout the love story is LBM’s remarkable signature a cappella isicathamiya and mbube music. Nine singers, including three sons of the group’s founder Joseph Shabalala, are a Zulu chorus, both speaking and singing to advise and tease Lindiwe as she tours around the world with the band. Wearing blue track suits (costumes by Karin Kopischke), the men move on and off stage to offer rhythms and harmonies that always feel like a warm embrace.
“These guys, I take them with me wherever I go,” Lindi (for short) says.
Act One sets up the girl-meets-boy relationship, and Act Two chronicles its inevitable entropy in a trope evocative of Orpheus and Eurydice. They are supported by a dynamic trio of shape-shifters: the fierce and funny Jennifer Engstrom, assured Cedric Young (part of the original Jacob Zulu cast), and snarky Yasen Peyankov as an androgynous, Charon-like liminal sentry. Live guitarist Buddy Fambro and bassist Frank Russell move from stage left to onstage to create Kingston Mines and back up Tembe’s glorious, clarion voice as she belts “Sweet Home Chicago,” among others.
The beginning is brisk and light, and the Chicago references are meta, from the Green Mill to Montrose Beach, hot dogs to the Cubs. But the ending gets scattered, probably since there are fewer LBM moments. The five-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble is the lifeblood of the play, and should retain prominence to illuminate their connection to the city (they performed at the Old Town School of Folk Music in February 2018).
This sage take on the meaning of home via the heartbeat of music skillfully ushers in 2020, the year of perfect vision.