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Sarafina! (01/28/1988 - 07/02/1989)


New York Daily News: "Sarafina! Aims At The Heart"

"Sarafina!" opened at the Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse October 25, 1987. It moved to the Cort January 28, 1988.

Sometimes when you see shows from South Africa, of which "Sarafina!" is one of the most joyous, you wonder how they must seem to someone who doesn't have the correct political opinions. What would, say, Archie Bunker make of it?

Would Archie be confused to see that the band wears South African Army costumes, suggesting these terrific black musicians are somehow the oppressors?

During a scene in which students in a Soweto classroom decide to do a play about the plight of jailed black leader Nelson Mandela, would Archie be disturbed by the horseplay going on? Would it remind him of an old vaudeville sketch like "School Daze?"?

Would he understand that in a scene where the soldiers disrupt a class learning about Khadaffi, he's supposed to regard the soldiers as the bad guys?

Or would Archie just lean back and not worry too much about the meaning? Even Archie couldn't resist Hugh Masekela's music, with melodies and harmonies so fresh and beautiful they could be describing a rainbow as easily as they carry lyrics like "We protest this emergency."

Surely Archie would be moved by the recitation of atrocity stories. Nor could he help being won over by the cast of young South Africans, whose enthusiasm and extraordinary musicianship are irresistible. So if the earnest, frenzied liberals in the audience don't worry about meaning or coherence, why should Archie?

New York Daily News

New York Post: "From pain, this hope"

"Sarafina!" opened at the Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse October 25, 1987. It moved to the Cort January 28, 1988.

There is always an irony added to art when it comes out of suffering.

Go to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center and you will encounter perhaps the most joyous noise to be heard in New York City. It comes from a new folk musical, "Sarafina!," which opened last night.

And it is the sound of a music called Mbaqanga - a sound that may be faintly familiar to those who know Paul Simon's recent "Graceland" album.

It is the jazzy folksy music of South African townships, and it combines elements as diverse as African drums, American jazz, and English hymns.

Most important of all, it is a music born, bred, and nurtured from suffering. It comes from South Africa's "days of anger, the days of panic and fear." Days that have mounted up to lifetimes punctuated with tear gas, fire, and death.

Song is a potent political protest, and can be an unanswerable instrument in revolutionary strategy. And "Sarafina!" sings and protests with a fervor born of oppression and immortal hope.

Its genesis - and yes, there is a certain biblical tone to the evening - has been much written about. The story has been told how the South African playwright, director, and musician, Mbongeni Ngema, got together with the emigre South Africa jazz trumpet player Hugh Masekela to create this unique slice-of-life musical.

It was Ngema who recruited the adolescent schoolchildren from the townships, took them to Johannesburg, and trained them from scratch, to create this oddly improvised-seeming, cantata-style musical.

The 20 or so performers are brilliant. They combine the winning naivete of amateurism at its purest best with an almost slick professionalism that takes one's breath away.

These performers are razor sharp, enormously talented, and can sing, dance, and act with obviously equal facility. Moreover each and every one of them emerges, most exceptionally, as a distinct personality.

Ngema's achievement simply in forging this troupe into a cutting-edged theater force is almost incredible. They all perform with the calculated spontaneity of veteran tradition.

Inspired by an existing Masakela song, "Sarafina!," which takes a young black girl as a symbol of township sacrifice and resistance, Ngema created this musical inspired by the student protests of 1976 at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto.

There is a slender story line - which takes some time to emerge - about the students putting on a show about the imaginary return of the apartheid opponent and national hero of the townships, Nelson Mandela.

The show itself - this show within the show - is terrific, ending with a Zulu tribal dance of celebration that sends you whirling out into the street in a state of dizzy exhilaration. Leaving the night air to remind you that the triumph is of the soul not of the body, fiction and not yet fact.

The fact - the oppression, the bigotry, and the torment - is never far away in the show, and a constant reminder is the barbed-wire enclosure at the back, and the uniformed band, playing its music around a government tank, the very symbol of a people's slavery.

But the air of "Sarafina!" is alive with triumph, the music is glorious, the performances vibrant. I predict it will do as much to fight the terrible canker of apartheid as any number of half-hearted economic sanctions against the South African government proposed to the UN.

For "Sarafina!" lives - and celebrates man, while dramatizing man's injustice.

New York Post

New York Times: "South African 'Sarafina!'"

"Sarafina!" opened at the Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse October 25, 1987. It moved to the Cort January 28, 1988.

Though diligent New York audiences of the 1980's may not learn a lot about the political dynamics of the United States at the theater, they have surely become experts on South Africa. Dissident productions from Johannesburg's Market Theater, urgently telling and retelling the atrocities of apartheid, now reach New York faster than new plays from Louisville or London. Is there a danger that we'll be rendered numb by the oft-told tales of Soweto and Sharpville? Perhaps, but not as long as South Africa's defiant theater artists revel in the cultural heterogeneity that the South African Government would like to suppress. While there is indeed nothing new in the grim content of Mbongeni Ngema's ''Sarafina!,'' the latest Market Theater import to reach Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater, the show's exuberant form is its own revelation.

Mr. Ngema, the creator of last season's ''Asinamali!'' and co-author of ''Woza Albert!,'' has brought forth a musical that transmutes the oppression of black townships into liberating singing and dancing that nearly raises the theater's roof. ''Sarafina!'' is a celebration of Mbaquanga, the indigenous township rock music that is probably best known to American audiences as having inspired Paul Simon's album ''Graceland.'' In ''Sarafina!,'' that music, as composed by Mr. Ngema and the celebrated trumpeter Hugh Masekela, is not filtered through Mr. Simon's urbane Manhattan sensibility but is instead heard straight, undiluted. One can understand completely why Mr. Simon was immediately swept away by it.

Mbaquanga is driving, infectious dance music that seems to express the complex history of a people. If its roots are deeply embedded in Zulu culture, one also hears the latter-day influences of white colonial missionaries, of black American gospel music, of Motown rhythm-and-blues and of metallic, present-day rock. The score of ''Sarafina!'' - whether driven by timeless drums or jazzy horns or electric guitar - evokes the cacophony of life in a black society both oppressed and defiant, at once sentenced to hard labor and ignited by dreams of social justice. It is a society like no other and yet it is far more plugged into the international pop culture, black and white, than an outsider might have thought.

Fittingly, the evening's numbers are performed by two dozen young people - most of them in their late teens - who are actual participants in township life rather than professional performers. Mr. Ngema found his cast in countrywide auditions, then trained it in singing and dancing. That training produced more virtuosity than ever seen on MTV, because the large ''Sarafina!'' company becomes a single entity, a rolling human wave - whether forming a choir that sings close harmonies a cappella or a gyrating dance ensemble that flies across the stage in angular leaps coordinated even to the slightest flicks of elbows or index fingers. As the score percolates with the sounds of a distant world, so the performers become animated embodiments of those sounds, their tiniest muscles at one with every minuscule shift of feeling and beat.

So potent are the songs, the performers and Ndaba Mhlongo's hard-driving band that one can usually tolerate Mr. Ngema's considerable sloppiness in other areas. As drama, ''Sarafina!'' is an attenuated, if well-meaning, grab bag. The setting is Morris Isaacson High School, the site of student protests during the Soweto uprising of 1976, and the premise has to do with the students' efforts to create a play out of their tragic history. The blurred vignettes recounting the horrors inflicted by the secret police, from the patrolling of classrooms to the detention of teachers, are perhaps presented too accurately in the manner of high-school dramatics: they have an unspecific, generic, playacting feel that blunts their immediacy. In a climactic sequence depicting the massacre of schoolchildren by policemen, one is more conscious of the asphixiating fake smoke and toy machine guns than the real-life history being recounted.

The humorous sketches about the prankish, everyday activities of school kids also lack impact. Neither the writing nor the acting instills the characters with the individuality necessary to sustain such antics. But the character of the music and of the young faces of ''Sarafina!'' exerts a pull that keeps rescuing the evening from its failures at conventional theatrical tasks. Even as the show's half-hour or so of overlength becomes painfully apparent in Act II, the cast keeps winning back the audience's good will.

Although it is unfair to single out a performer from this tightknit company, one must say that the beautiful Leleti Khumalo, as the title character and star of the school play, goes about her assignment with a particularly mesmerizing intensity. When she and the rest of the cast finally shed their drab school uniforms for African dress to celebrate their imagined ''day of liberation,'' the ecstatic fury of Ms. Khumalo's dancing eyes and broad smile inflames the house. ''Sarafina!'' is hardly the tidiest evening of South African theater to reach New York, but one wonders if the raging pulsebeat of apartheid's victims has ever seemed so loud or so close.

New York Times

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